Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Conservatives strike "gender equality" from Canadian foreign policy

A follow-up here to last week's post, "Conservative political staff quietly making significant foreign policy changes." There was another important piece in Embassy Magazine last week on the changes being made by Conservative politicos to key phrases with historic and legal meaning in Canada's foreign policies. That piece explained that diluting the wording of long-standing Canadian foreign policy commitments arguably allows the Conservatives to weaken Canada's commitment to the International Criminal Court ("ICC"). And of course, the re-writing they are undertaking fundamentally alters the nature of Canada's foreign policy positions in ways that the Canadian public may not support (more on that below).

This week, Minister Cannon is denying all this quite flatly and has a message to those in Foreign Affairs who disagree:

"I've told my people that this is the policy that we carry out and if anybody is not happy with these policies that we're carrying out, well all they have to do is go and run in the next election and get themselves elected and support a policy that is different from ours," the minister said.

"We've been elected to govern the country and the government of Canada puts forward, sets forward its objectives, its policy objectives as it does in any other department. And it is up to the departments to execute the policies that the Canadian population supported and acknowledged by putting this government in place. And that is exactly what we are doing."

When asked specifically about the language changes, Mr. Cannon simultaneously downplayed the significance and acknowledged that the government is charting new territory.

"They don't change anything," he said. "It's our vocabulary. You're driving this down into the weeds."

However, he later said that "in some circumstances it's semantics. In other circumstances...whether it be the Responsibility to Protect, we're going to be changing policies so that they reflect what Canada's values are and what Canadians said when they supported us during the last election. That's the role of government, that's the role of an elected official."

Well, let's take a look, again, at their removal of the words "justice" and "impunity" from Canada's traditional policy on sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in favour of the new policy of "prevention" of sexual violence. The meaning of our policy does change, beyond "semantics." The new Conservative policy effectively means that Canada is no longer calling for prosecutions at the ICC for the horrendous crimes there:
"The word justice, whenever it's linked into the word impunity, is code-word for the ICC, especially when it's referring to the DRC because of the handful of cases that the court has right now, most of them are from the DRC and most of them, interestingly enough, deal with sexual violence, child soldiers, and impunity," Mr. Mendes said. "While prevention is part of the mandate of ICC, it's central focus is justice. It basically means to say that Canada is not interested in more prosecutions in the DRC from the decades civil war which has cost more lives than any conflict since the Second World War. Close to 4.5 million people have died there, many of them, perhaps most of them, civilians."

Mr. Neve said that while both prevention and impunity are very important justice goals for Canada to be actively promoting, he said removing 'impunity' and replacing it with 'prevent' becomes very worrying.

"It does suggest less of a commitment to the importance of the role ICC and other kinds of justice mechanisms in dealing with horrific human rights violations like the mass rape that women have experienced in Congo."
Do Canadians support walking away from such prosecutions? Mr. Cannon would say yes, given that he states his government is putting in place policies the Canadian public supports. Policies that reflect Canadian values. Really?

Additionally, Cannon would say that the removal of the terms "gender equality" and "gender-based violence" by Conservative political staffers in favour of the term "equality of men and women" is either "semantic" or perhaps their view of "what Canada's values are."
Removing references to "gender equality" and "gender-based violence" from Canadian foreign policy are particularly sensitive because it is Canada who, in the past couple of decades, has led the fight to bring these terms into the international development and human rights agenda.

"Canada worked hard and long to include gender-based violence in international documents, in the world of children and armed conflict where Canada is a leader, we've worked very hard to include gender-based violence as a serious violation. So removing that is a serious step backward and I would argue that the Canadian public would not agree with that," said Kathy Vandergrift, chair of the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children.

Mr. Neve said it is fundamentally important that "gender-based violence" be recognized as a particular form of human rights abuse at the United Nations and elsewhere because it reflects the fact that it is women, particularly in the midst of conflict, who disproportionately experience very serious and distinct forms of gender-based violence.

"To learn that Canada is determinedly taking that language out when what we should be seeing from Canada is championing efforts to further strengthen that language and be a real defender of how important it is in international documents, is very upsetting," he said. (emphasis added)
It's not clear at all, despite Minister Cannon's protestations, that Canadians expect decades of foreign policy positions to be quietly undone by the stroke of Conservative political staffers' editing pens. As a minority government, in particular, their claim to a mandate to enact such changes is tenuous. They have never been inclined to accept the democratic status that Canadians have put on them but continue to breach it.

This all leads to a very strange place for Canada on the world stage, where we've been leaders in establishing the ICC and advocating for the principles outlined above. But this new latent hostility to the ICC aligns the Conservatives (and Canada) with the Bush Republican policy of opposition to the court.

These reports by Embassy should cause Canadians to question whether this is the kind of foreign policy direction they wish for Canada to take. Are we willing to let years of work and reputation go with a stroke of the editing pen? Should we be dialing back years of advocacy for tackling important issues like gender-based violence when epic crimes such as those in the Congo occur? Do we no longer care about that? What do Canadian women think about that?

This is a story that needs to be told. There are other important changes referenced in the above links that the Cannon staffers are making that have similar impacts. Canadians should know about these fundamental shifts in our foreign policy under the Conservatives. The government certainly isn't telling us about it.