The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper prides itself on having a “principled” foreign policy and for taking “clear positions” in the defence of human rights. Why, then, did Foreign Minister John Baird barely utter a peep in public about Bahrain’s terrible human rights record when he visited that country on Wednesday?
When Arab Spring protests spread to this Persian Gulf state in 2011, Bahrain’s government responded with deadly force, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and other forms of ill treatment, according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and many other independent observers.
Although Bahrain’s government later promised to implement reforms – including accountability at the uppermost levels of the country’s security forces for abuses against protesters, and the release of unjustly imprisoned opposition and human rights leaders – it has taken little action to fulfil these pledges. The regime’s latest initiative has been to launch a “National Dialogue” with opposition groups, but whether it will lead to substantial improvements in human rights, or simply produce talk without concrete action, remains to be seen.
In the past, Mr. Baird has made it abundantly clear that he favours action over talk. Just last week, for instance, he explained that Canada was withdrawing from the UN convention on desertification because it was a “talkfest.”
Moreover, both he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have said, many times, that Canada will “speak clearly” and without “moral ambivalence” in defence of what is “principled and just” – including freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law – regardless of whether doing so is “popular, convenient or expedient.”
In practice, however, the application of these principles has been haphazard and contradictory. In some cases, Ottawa has reacted with startling intensity. In January, for instance, when Sri Lanka’s parliament dismissed the country’s chief justice, Mr. Baird responded with rhetorical guns blazing. He “condemned” the move – strong language in international diplomacy – and bluntly called on the Sri Lankan government to “change course immediately.”
In other cases, however, the Canadian response has been muted and feeble. Ottawa has little to say about Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank, for example. Canada even refrained from criticizing the extra-legal detention of a Canadian citizen by the United States at Guantanamo Bay.
Bahrain is the latest example of inconsistency. After meeting with Bahraini officials, Mr. Baird issued a statement with a single, milquetoast paragraph on human rights and the rule of law. “I was pleased to learn of progress on the National Dialogue, which is meant to ease sectarian tensions and advance the rights of all Bahrainis,” he said, not even hinting at the continued illegal incarceration of political activists. “Frank and constructive dialogue between the government and the nation’s young people is especially crucial for Bahrain as it works toward stability, prosperity and pluralism.”
Perhaps Mr. Baird believed that he had good reasons – such as strengthening the commercial and strategic relationship between Canada and Bahrain – to avoid mentioning the country’s human-rights record. Such calculations are the stuff of foreign policy, a domain in which competing imperatives are common. However, when it comes from a Canadian government that has repeatedly and sanctimoniously proclaimed that it will never “go along to get along,” this silence is jarring.
It also reflects a deeper problem in Canadian foreign policy. After more than seven years in office, the ruling Conservatives remain uncomfortable with diplomacy. Their default orientation is to divide the world into friends and enemies – white hats and black hats. When they are faced with competing imperatives and nuances, they seem to have difficulty calibrating their positions.
As a result, Canada lurches around the world like a drunk, sometimes shouting and haranguing, and sometimes whispering conspiratorially. One day we praise the UN desertification convention; the next day we reject it as worthless and stomp away. No one knows what to expect from Canada anymore – except unpredictability and tactlessness.
Canada is one of the oldest democracies in the world. We have a proud tradition of effective, sustained, sophisticated international diplomacy. Surely, we can do better than this.
Roland Paris is University Research Chair of International Security and Governance at the University of Ottawa. He is currently a visiting professor at Sciences Po in Paris, France. He tweets at @rolandparis.