Skip to main content
gerald caplan

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.

In principle, all Canadian politicians forthrightly favour human rights and make it a central tenet, an overriding principle, of their foreign policy platforms.

No one, for example, wants to defend selling arms to Saudi Arabia, not even those opposition Conservative MPs who actually did the deal when they were in government. Or the new Liberal government that is supporting the Conservative deal they once loudly opposed in opposition.

But surely there's an issue of ethical consistency here. You can't really just go around applying cherished principles to some matters and not others. Of course such consistency complicates governing. If an egregious human-rights offender like Saudi Arabia can't be allowed to buy our arms – except when it does – what about others like it? The world is awash in nations whose governments routinely violate human rights. Do we sell arms to them, too, protesting all the way?

Do we sell anything to them? Do we even talk to them? Surely anything that bolsters such a regime is unacceptable?

Then there's China, with which the entire world is dying to deal as much as possible. Mr. Trudeau has now had an entire week in China tying himself in knots, exactly as the Harper government did. But human rights, China and the Trudeaus are a curious tag team.

Somewhat awkwardly, Justin T's daddy openly admired Mao Zedong, one of the greatest mass murderers in history. Somewhat awkwardly, too, Junior himself has allowed that, "There's a level of admiration I actually have for China. Their basic dictatorship is actually allowing them to turn their economy around on a dime." Yes, they're lucky hot dogs all right, those Chinese.

Trudeau Junior had witnessed the Conservatives coming to power committed to promoting human rights as a major goal, especially with China. It took no time at all for the Harper government to face the contradictions of their position, with no consistent way out.

Didn't the current PM observe then that, when dealing with China, nations have only one choice: do it on China's terms or don't deal at all. Frankly, my dear, China doesn't give a damn what any of us thinks, even Pierre Trudeau's kid. That's what Mr. Harper soon discovered and why he went humbly to China in 2014. While he may or may not have paid lip service to human rights behind the scenes, as he righteously claimed, the only thing that mattered to China was its own self-interest. If you want a bigger bite of the Chinese pie – as everyone does – you do it strictly on their terms.

That's the dilemma every government in the world faces, and almost every one soon comes to the same conclusion. In fact, it's gotten more obvious. Today, even more than a few years ago, the most authoritative China watchers all agree that democracy and human rights are nowhere at all on China's agenda. Indeed, under President Xi Jinping, the present leadership seems even more committed to a brutal kind of Leninist capitalism than their predecessors. So a foreign leader who wants to do business with China does exactly what Mr. Harper did and Mr. Trudeau is doing while pretending otherwise.

Nor in truth do human rights much matter on other Canadian fronts either. Occasional human-rights lover Jason Kenney enthusiastically welcomed some of the world's most pernicious arms dealers to Canada's annual weapons fair in Ottawa. John Baird embraced the brutal military government of Egypt. The Harper government cherished its close relationship with Saudi Arabia. That's where the giant arms deal came in, and the government unashamedly hyped the sale as a major success for Canada. Yet it was still sweating about how to deal with China. Why the double standard?

Are all human rights violators not created equal? Are some violations of human rights more intolerable than others? In the real world, as opposed to an election platform or in Question Period, this is a question that all governments must come to grips with. As the Saudi arms deal has revealed to the Liberals, it's not as easy as it might have seemed. That's why Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion has unburdened himself of some truly surrealistic, Conservative-worthy rhetoric to justify not cancelling the armoured truck contract with the Saudis.

Beyond that, with little fanfare, the Liberal government has also now quietly changed regulations to make it easier than it had been to sell arms to any dictator it wants. Nor did Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan say boo publicly to the government of Ethiopia when he arrived there three days after government forces murdered dozens of peaceful protestors. But, needless to say, the Minister raised the pesky matter "in private bilateral conversations." How's that for a brave commitment to principle?

Look at what really happened in China last week. As this paper's China correspondent understood, "Far from taking a stern tone," wrote Nathan Vanderklippe, Trudeau "has been largely complimentary towards China and its leadership." Canadians wanted human rights raised; Mr. Trudeau raised them. But observers knew these gestures wouldn't disturb the Chinese much. "Instead, they will be written off as domestic politicking."

Canadians may not yet have seen through Mr. Trudeau's theatrics. But the shrewd Chinese clearly have.