Skip to main content
doug saunders

"Rule of law." That, in the words of Canadian officials, is what we are delivering to the world's more troubled countries. We export it, we promote it, we champion it and those countries proclaim that they're delivering it, often forcefully.

But whose rule are we supporting? Which sorts of laws? And what happens when the rule of law, with our support, is used to crush other values we support, such as democracy, human rights and freedom of expression?

That's become a trend. Nominally democratic regimes, seeking to retain their hold on power, have passed sweeping "security" laws allowing them to shut down many forms of dissent, opposition, journalism and scrutiny, and to punish their political opponents – all under the law and often using legal norms and institutions supported internationally.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin uses the rule of law to prevent democratic movements or opposition parties from gaining influence in his country, he receives our condemnation and sanction. But other countries, from Myanmar to Turkey to Egypt, are doing the same thing with our tacit and sometimes material support.

Over the past several years, "rule of law" has become the big theme in Canada's international assistance. When International Development Minister Christian Paradis announced Canada's new aid policy in 2013, he made 13 mentions of "rule of law" as a key value to be exported. It is what our foreign ministers champion when they hand aid cheques to foreign leaders, and we give almost $35-million a year to the RCMP for "building the capacity of foreign police to maintain law and order." Originally, such "law and order" initiatives were linked tightly to democracy, and on paper they still are, along with human rights and security. But in the years since the Arab Spring uprisings went sour in Egypt, Libya and Syria, democracy promotion has sometimes taken a back seat, and the phrase officials use to accompany law-and-order promotion is now no longer "democracy" but "security."

To see how our rule-of-law policies are being used to hurt our other values, take a look at Egypt. In the nine months since Abdel Fattah el-Sissi cemented his military coup by becoming president in a barely contested election, he has passed a series of laws and decrees that allow rapid prosecution of people and groups accused of "harming national unity" or "disrupting public order." His latest bill, passed on Feb. 24, "enables authorities to act against any individual or group deemed a threat to national security, including people who disrupt public transportation," according to Reuters; this would appear to allow the banning of protests in streets or public squares.

When such laws were used to jail Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy and sentence him to seven years in prison on "terrorism" charges, there was little response initially. In February, then-foreign minister John Baird travelled to Cairo, where he had a "very long and in-depth discussion," in his words, with his Egyptian counterpart about the possibility of freeing Mr. Fahmy.

In fact, Mr. Baird's main objective in Cairo was not to bury Mr. Sissi's law-and-order regime, but to praise it – and give it money it can use to support its crackdowns. "I personally reaffirm Canada's strong support for the new government of Egypt and its transition to democracy and the inclusion of human rights and rule of law," he said the same day his attempt to free Mr. Fahmy was rebuffed. He then announced a $2-million donation to Egypt for "security and counterterrorism" programs, pledged more RCMP support for "law and order," and promised another $30.8-million for other programs.

This week, as Egypt's new dissent law was being imposed and Mr. Fahmy's appeal trial began (with Canada having failed to secure his deportation), Canada's ambassador to Egypt, Troy Lulashnyk, announced that a Canadian energy company's investment in Egypt sent a "clear signal … to Egyptians that their country is open for business."

More than a decade ago, when rule-of-law promotion was a new field, Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote with alarm that these programs were often producing results that contradicted the values they were meant to promote. In a 2011 study of rule-of-law aid programs such as Canada's, legal scholar Katherine Erbeznik found that these programs actually hinder reform – they allow hard-line regimes to remain authoritarian by stiffening the legal backbone and the legitimacy of their regime.

This is clearly what Canada's rule-of-law initiatives are doing in Egypt and elsewhere. And, worse, we seem to be perfectly aware of what kind of laws, and what sorts of political orders, we're backing.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct