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Ottawa needs a human-rights strategy

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Canada’s human rights reputation is under threat. The past year has seen the United Nations blast Ottawa for deplorable treatment of indigenous communities, violating international law by ignoring the Convention Against Torture and for weak anti-corruption laws that continue to allow Canadian firms to bribe overseas with relative impunity.

Amnesty International has referred to our situation as a "human rights crises." And for good reason, the UN’s assessment is alarming.

With less than two years away from the launch of the prized Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the government must consider how it can reconcile the country’s declining human rights image. Opening the CMHR while failing to address our human-rights challenges at home and abroad will undermine the museum’s mission.

One of the more distressing trends has been the suggestion that humanitarian aid should be aligned with private-sector objectives. The recent proposal that the Canadian International Development Agency should take on new business-like roles such as trade negotiations brings wide-reaching risk to our humanitarian image.

First, allocating aid according to narrow political and economic interests will fail to meet the development needs of the world’s most vulnerable populations. In fact, human security is a key plank of Canadian foreign policy. A Canadian concept, the architects of human security realized that keeping development work "humanitarian" and victim-based had value. The corporatization of humanitarianism risks minimizing important elements of a holistic aid strategy thereby undermining Canada’s human rights work.

Second, corporatizing CIDA gives a negative impression of Canada’s global development strategy. It presents aid as expert knowledge that is to be traded on the open market to developing economies that have resource wealth. Canada’s humanitarian efforts will become synonymous with resource usurpation. Moreover, aligning CIDA with the private sector does not guarantee industry will behave ethically. If firms behave unethically, CIDA risks sharing community backlash thereby undermining the agency’s credibility and development efforts.

Lastly, asking the private sector to align itself with development programs may force industry to take on new costs. Building successful public-private partnerships will require extensive and ongoing collaboration between industry, the non-profit sector, CIDA and local stakeholders. Implementing meaningful aid programs will require extensive funding and time on the part of the private sector. Still, aligning the private sector with development is an innovative idea that should not be dismissed. Rather it should be rethought.

Corporate goals can align with development especially concerning decent working practices and investing in social capital. The government should provide incentives for industry to adopt the United Nations guiding principles for business and human rights, also known as the "protect, respect and remedy" framework. The protection of human security and human rights should be firmly on the agenda as these are values that demonstrate Canada’s solid global reputation.

Moreover, the government can enhance the powers of the corporate social responsibility counsellor. The private sector plays an important role in development and assisting industry to embrace human rights is critical. The CSR councillor can assist business to engage in multi-stakeholder dialogue, develop community partnerships and promote environmental sustainability.

Amnesty International is right to suggest we are in the midst of a national human rights crisis. The stakes are high and while reputational risks may be the most of our worries, humanitarian catastrophes at home and abroad are real. A new human rights strategy is needed if the world is to take us seriously as defenders freedom and justice.


Kenneth Christie specializes in human rights and democratization and is the program head of the masters of arts in human security and peacebuilding at Royal Roads University in Victoria. Robert J. Hanlon is a research fellow at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia and a former editor at the Asian Human Rights Commission.


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