Canada’s new Office of Religious Freedom is facing its first serious test: a call to send its ambassador to Tibet to investigate religious repression and a related rash of self-immolations in the Chinese-controlled region. The call comes from Lobsang Sangay, the head of the group representing Tibetan exiles, who was in Ottawa this week. Sending the freshly minted ambassador would surely anger China, a major Canadian trading partner. But if the Harper government’s much-touted initiative on religious freedom is to have credibility, it should accept this challenge.
The Office of Religious Freedom has been met with skepticism since its creation earlier this month. Critics have pointed out that it is a new $5-million office inside a Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade that has otherwise had its budgets cut severely. They charge that it will be a press-release-generation project aimed at the Conservatives’ voter base, and that it has little chance of having an impact outside of Canada. Sending the new ambassador to Tibet would answer some of the critics’ legitimate concerns.
But those same critics should not ask too much of this new office and its ambassador, Andrew Bennett. Canada, through John Baird, the minister of Foreign Affairs, has already spoken up strongly about the “rash of self-immolations in Tibetan areas of China and the increasingly punitive measures taken in response,” as the minister put it in a press release in December of 2012. Mr. Baird called on China to “lift restrictions on access to the affected area for the diplomats, media and other observers,” and urged it to “ease tensions” by working “with the Dalai Lama or his representatives.”
Sending Mr. Bennett to Tibet would reinforce Canada’s position, but it would be critical for the ambassador to ensure that he is not drawn into a discussion that goes beyond religious freedoms. Mr. Sangay’s real purpose for visiting Ottawa this week was to push for Tibetan autonomy, an issue that falls well outside the mandate of the Office of Religious Freedom. Any effort to draw the new ambassador of religious freedom into that broader debate, or any other like it in places where geography and religion overlap, should be resisted.
The Harper government can deliver two messages by sending Ambassador Bennett to Tibet with the narrow mandate to investigate the recent spate of self-immolations: that its new Office of Religious Freedom means business; and that it won’t allow the Office’s agenda to be exploited by political movements.