The Harper government has found itself struggling to establish a long-promised watchdog for international religious persecution – trying to find a candidate for the office who’s ideologically compatible with the Conservatives but who won’t risk unduly hurting relations with countries such as China or Saudi Arabia.
It’s been nearly 19 months since Stephen Harper’s Tories were elected on a campaign platform that included a pledge to create an Office of Religious Freedom inside the Department of Foreign Affairs, a post with a $5-million annual budget to monitor and criticize persecution around the world.
The measure, in part inspired by the 2011 assassination of an outspoken Christian cabinet minister in Pakistan, was popular with evangelical Christian supporters of the Conservatives as well as some immigrant groups courted by the party.
Sources say the office has not yet materialized because the Conservatives have had difficulty locating the right person to serve as the first ambassador of religious freedom, a post that will require its occupant to publicly censure foreign regimes that mistreat minority religious groups.
Sources say the government is trying to find someone who shares its views but can also work co-operatively with the Foreign Affairs bureaucracy, and whose record on criticizing human rights won’t severely alienate countries such as China. “It’s very hard to find someone who checks all those boxes,” a person familiar with deliberations said.
For example, former Edmonton MP David Kilgour’s name has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but his high-profile advocacy work to draw attention to Chinese persecution of the Falun Gong movement has made it unlikely he would get the nod. “He’s been so hot on Falun Gong that China would go apoplectic,” the same person said.
Similarly, sources say, several veterans of Canada’s Foreign Affairs department were considered but deemed “not strong enough” on the subject of religious persecution. Part of the reason the Tories are establishing this office within Foreign Affairs, the Conservatives have said privately, is because of the pushback the government previously encountered from the bureaucracy on this subject. They complain that civil servants in some instances resisted their efforts to voice concern about religious persecution abroad.
A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declined to answer questions about behind-the-scenes preparations for the watchdog, but said the government is in the midst of setting up the post. “We’re currently working to get the office ready to go,” Rick Roth said. “If or when we have something further to announce, we will.”
The office, and the ambassador the Conservatives find to occupy it, will carve out a new role for Canada as a champion of religious rights abroad. The United States under former president Bill Clinton set up a similar bureau in 1998.
The difficulties the Tories are encountering stem from a fundamental tension in the design of the office. If it were established as a standalone watchdog at arm’s length from government, it would have more freedom to criticize foreign regimes without those pronouncements affecting Canada’s external relations. But because the office will be inside Foreign Affairs, the watchdog’s margin of manoeuvre will be more limited.