In February 2021, Canada declared that China was committing “genocide” against the Uyghur people of Xinjiang. A few months later, Canada was globally shamed by the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children who died at residential schools. China gleefully pointed out Canada’s hypocrisy.
Quebec’s Bill 21 bans the wearing of religious symbols in public institutions. It attacks all religions, but was motivated by xenophobia against Muslims. The bill embarrasses Canada and stains its human rights record. The relative silence of Canada’s major federal political parties on this issue, out of fear of losing votes in Quebec, demonstrates the vulnerability of minority rights to popular bigotry in Canada.
Canada can argue that it is trying to make amends to Indigenous peoples, however imperfectly. Bill 21 has been challenged in court and may be overturned. However, Canada’s foreign policy hypocrisy is less easily diverted.
The epitome of Canadian foreign policy hypocrisy is Canada’s approach to Israel. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have declared that Israel practices apartheid. Israel’s occupation and settlement of Palestinian land and displacement of Palestinians are longstanding violations of international law. Israeli settlers and military regularly use violence against Palestinian civilians with impunity. Generations of Palestinians languish as prisoners in Israeli prisons, regularly mistreated and tortured. Israel has attacked Palestinian identity by trying to disappear the Palestinian flag and outlawing NGOs supporting Palestinian civil society. Israel’s destructive power is exponentially greater than that of the Palestinians. Israel has killed more than 6,000 Palestinians since 2008, more than 1,200 of them children.
Officially, Canada does not condone Israel’s illegal actions. In practice, Canada does little to support its own policies. Instead, Canada has a free trade agreement with Israel and refuses to condemn Israeli violence against Palestinians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admonished the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigating Israel, arguing that Canada does not recognize “Palestine” as a sovereign state, ignoring the 139 countries that do, and threatening Canadian funding of the ICC. Some of the Palestinian NGOs recently closed by Israel were gathering information for the ICC probe. In the meantime, Canada calls for an ICC investigation of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, and condemns China’s abuse of the Uyghurs.
The world is complex. Being hypocritical may sometimes be necessary to protect vital Canadian interests. Also, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Canada may apply human rights principles inconsistently, but Canada’s disapproval may, sometimes, assist people facing abuse in other countries.
But why does Canada choose to condemn human rights abuses committed by some states and ignore or minimize the abuses of others? When making the decision to be hypocritical, what are the political, economic and security interests Canada is taking into account?
The only way to assess these decisions is to start from a position of honesty. We can acknowledge the brutal reality that China abuses the Uyghur people, then discuss what other interests and concerns Canada must consider when deciding how to weigh this issue in Canada’s overall policy towards China.
Any discussion of Canada’s position on Israel/Palestine should start with the fact that Israel seriously abuses human rights and violates international law. Then we can discuss what Canada gains and loses by defending Israel on the world stage, and even attacking Israel’s critics at home. Unfortunately, in Canada, honestly discussing Israel is extremely difficult, as demonstrated by the University of Toronto scandal, in which the university caved to pressure from a sitting judge and opted to revoke its hiring of a human rights director because of her position on Israel/Palestine.
In June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court stripped millions of Americans of their constitutional right to abortion. Prime Minister Trudeau tweeted that the decision was “horrific” and some cabinet ministers expressed their distress, but the Canadian government otherwise stayed silent on the issue, despite its profound human rights implications. Criticizing the U.S., a critically important country, over an issue that does not directly impact Canada is not in Canada’s interest.
On the other hand, what does Canada gain by following along with economic sanctions that result in the starvation of millions of Afghans—the same people whose “human rights” it supposedly fought to protect for a decade?
So long as Canada follows a “values-driven” foreign policy, it will be hypocritical. Sometimes, that hypocrisy is necessary—Canada might risk too much by being morally consistent. Other times, Canada can afford the costs. Canadians must understand the compromises necessary in global politics. However, Canada must openly discuss how and why it chooses to be inconsistent in its foreign policy. If it cannot do this then its invocation of human rights is merely a moralistic smokescreen with very little credibility.
Shaun Narine is a professor of international relations at St. Thomas University. His primary area of interest is the Asia Pacific region, but he has also published and taught on Canadian foreign policy.
This commentary is published with permission from The Hill Times, where it was originally published.