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colin robertson

Despite other Ottawa distractions, Foreign Minister John Baird's 'dignity agenda' is slowly taking shape. It might just become one of the Harper government's lasting contributions to Canadian foreign policy.

Framed last fall in speeches delivered in Montreal, in the United Nations General Assembly in New York and in Quebec City, the message is clear and tweetable: people deserve the "dignity to live in freedom, in peace and to provide for one's family." It specifically defends women, children and gay people. Its simplicity recalls, not without coincidence, Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms.

It neatly avoids the tiresome argument between values and interests by underlining that "doing what is morally right is in our national interest."

Its roots are bipartisan, openly acknowledging both Louis St. Laurent, who laid the foundations for modern Canadian foreign policy, and Brian Mulroney for his work in Africa, especially South Africa. The dignity divide is not left versus right but rather between open and closed.

If it is to succeed, the dignity agenda will need to demonstrate the kind of tangible accomplishments that former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy's human security agenda achieved, notably the landmark Treaty on Land Mines and the creation of the International Criminal Court.

For now, the dignity agenda is a combination of policy instruments – such as the creation of the Ambassador for Religious Freedom – and actions, including targeted sanctions on Iran.

Then there is 'direct diplomacy.'

Demonstrated recently at Toronto's Munk Centre, Ottawa's Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran used social media – Facebook and Twitter – as both amplifier and intervenor into the conversation. Designed to encourage open discussion in the lead-up to Iran's June elections, Mr. Baird told his audience, including an estimated 350,000 in Iran, that they "have a friend in Canada."

If foreign policy covers a spectrum from idealist to realist, Mr. Baird's is firmly in the idealist camp. And indeed, realists can question the efficacy of the dignity agenda.

Morality and foreign policy "is a subject much wanting in thought" observed the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. Of necessity, international politics depends on hard power both as last resort and as first responder in time of disaster. Soft power can too easily settle into easy, ineffectual preachiness.

U.S. Secretary of Dean Acheson once likened Canadian moralizing to the "stern daughter of the voice of God." Our own International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (Rights & Democracy) eventually ate itself – a lesson in the best of intentions going badly awry.

But experience demonstrates that, after the fact, whether in Burma, South Africa or Central Europe, dissidents say that one of the things that kept them going was knowledge that someone – somewhere – cared about their plight.

Nelson Mandela praised Canada for having maintained our "support for the forces of democracy at a critical time in a transition whose outcome was never guaranteed."

Mr. Mandela specifically identified the Canadian International Development Agency for having given millions of South Africans access to things that most Canadians would take for granted – clean water, housing and electricity – "but which have been only a dream to the majority of South Africans."

The government should remember this as it re-integrates CIDA into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

While putting the emphasis on trade as the economic engine for sustainable development is correct, dignity also includes a safety net for those who need a hand-up and for the sick, young and elderly. And any state that does not address the condition of women and girls can neither be prosperous nor secure.

It is still early days for the Baird dignity agenda. Skeptics will question whether the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom has more to do with appeasing the evangelical base of the Conservative Party.

It took months to find an Ambassador for Religious Freedom. The man they found, Andrew Bennett, has made pronouncements to date that have been pointed, targeted and frequent. He needs to go beyond the condemnatory and offer something with soul. His U.S. counterpart produces an annual evaluation of religious freedom. Why not a Canadian perspective?

We are, arguably, the world's most successful pluralist society. We have faults. Look at Statistics Canada's grim reports on the situation of First Nations women and children. But, comparatively, Canada works.

The Aga Khan established the Global Centre for Pluralism in Canada because he felt our national experience "made it a natural home for this venture."

To see diversity as an opportunity rather than burden, observed the Aga Khan, is a permanent work in progress requiring concerted, deliberate efforts to build social institutions and cultural habits which take account of difference. The aim is not perfection but decency and mutual respect – in short, dignity for individuals and the collective.

Making the dignity agenda a Canadian export is a worthy objective, consistent with our values and interests. It should also serve to remind us that there is still much work to do at home.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.

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