Why is Foreign Minister John Baird misrepresenting Canada's policies on the Mideast?
Last week, Mr. Baird met with Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni in East Jerusalem. The meeting was controversial because of its location. Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war and later annexed it. Canada, like most of our allies and the United Nations, has historically regarded that territory as occupied, rather than as formally part of Israel.
Any peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will have to address the city's contested status. Partly for this reason, Canada has maintained a longstanding policy of not meeting with Israeli officials (or accepting Israeli government escorts) in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. These guidelines have reflected both Canada's strong support of Israel and its commitment to international law and a just peace.
Why, then, did Mr. Baird later say that the location of his East Jerusalem meeting was "irrelevant" and that it did not "signal a change in Canadian foreign policy"?
Perhaps he did not know about the policy or did not understand the political implications of meeting an Israeli minister in occupied territory. Either of these explanations might account for his "irrelevant" remark. They might also explain his spokesperson's breezy justification of the meeting's controversial location: "As guests, we were pleased to meet our hosts where it was most convenient for them."
However, neither of these explanations is plausible. Mr. Baird has traveled to the Mideast before and seems to have a particular interest in the politics of the region. It is inconceivable that fundamental facts about the political status of East Jerusalem would have escaped his attention.
It is similarly inconceivable that his officials would not have been informed him of Canada's longstanding policy regarding meetings with Israeli government officials in the occupied territories, along with the reasons behind this policy.
If we set aside ignorance or negligence as reasons for Mr. Baird's actions, the remaining explanation is that he knowingly altered Canadian policy and deliberately misrepresented this fact when he was challenged.
As foreign minister, Mr. Baird has the right to change Canadian policy, but he is not entitled to change policy and then to deny doing so. Yet, that is precisely what he seems to be doing.
Although ministerial double-speak is troubling at any time, it is particularly disconcerting when it comes from a government that claims to "speak clearly" in the pursuit of a "principled" foreign policy.
Moreover, the East Jerusalem incident followed Baird's visit to Bahrain, where he made no mention of that country's atrocious human rights record – in spite of the fact that both he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have repeatedly stated that Canada will speak out strongly for human rights, regardless of whether doing so is "popular, convenient or expedient."
These actions raise important questions about the consistency and purposes of Canadian foreign policy, but the question of honesty is even more fundamental. If Mr. Baird wishes to change Canada's Mideast policies, he should follow his own government's injunction to "speak clearly" to Canadians about what he is doing in their name.
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.