Universal or selective human rights?

This week, the Prime Minister is in China to supposedly thaw relations he has been criticized for frosting since the years he was in opposition criticizing the government.

Stephen Harper, and indeed, a number of prominent Conservatives have, for years, roundly admonished China for its poor human rights record since the days of the Reform Party. For this, members of the opposition have suggested that the Conservatives firm stance against China has harmed our economic relationship with that country.

Among the Conservatives who have stood up against China is Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister of Citizenship and Immigration. My first exposure to Jason Kenney’s breadth of politics came in 2005 when he and members of the Alberta Conservative caucus held a pro-Tibet movie night at the Conservative Party Convention in Montreal. In January of that year, while on a parliamentary trip overseas, Kenney was criticized by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin for embarrassing the Chinese when he visited the home of pro-democracy reformer Zhao Ziyang.

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In the Afghan detainee transfer agreement signed by General Rick Hillier and the Afghanistan defence minister, an entente was struck to prevent human rights abuses. Among other important guarantees it declares, “No person transferred from the Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities will be subject to the application of the death penalty.” This is a strict yet progressive demand for the unstable government of an emerging democracy which in darker days used to slit the throats of thieves like sheep before a stadium of spectators in Kandahar province.

Last week China put a bullet in the back of the head of two company managers in the tainted milk scandal where six children died of contaminated milk. With an estimated 470 executions in 2008, China is believed to be the world’s leading executioner.

In Canada, some of our Liberal Parliamentarians have shown surprise over the past three weeks at allegations that some Afghans treat their fellow Afghans with callous disregard and fault Canadian officials for an uneasy balancing of coddling of a country reborn out of rubble going through the birth pangs of establishing a civil society, with the brutal hell of war against combatants that wear no uniform, splash acid in the faces of schoolchildren, and cut off the ears of those that would work to bring good governance to their country.

Meanwhile, Liberal observers have criticized the Conservatives for pushing human rights in China at the expense of trade. Liberals such as John McCallum describe the “broken Canada-China relation[ship] under the Conservative government” and Scott Brison who prematurely boasted that “the fact that Ignatieff is able to go to China as the leader of the opposition before the ruling party leader does is a clear indication of how good and solid relation[s] between the Liberals and China [are].” Ignatieff subsequently canceled his trip due to a pending fall election triggered by the Liberal leader himself.

This sentiment expressed by McCallum and Brison is not exclusive to the critics of the Liberal benches in the House of Commons. Rebukes of Stephen Harper’s tough stance on China’s abuses have also been echoed by former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien who complains that Canada used to be China’s “best friend”. Chretien bemoaned that comparatively, in the first three years that he was Prime Minister, the p’tit gars had visited China eight or nine times. Never mind the fact that Chretien started lobbying the Chinese government within weeks of stepping down as Canada’s twentieth Prime Minister.

According to Amnesty International, China is guilty of a number of human rights abuses,

Growing numbers of human rights activists were imprisoned, put under house arrest or surveillance, or harassed. Repression of minority groups, including Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians, continued. Falun Gong practitioners were at particularly high risk of torture and other ill-treatment in detention. Christians were persecuted for practising their religion outside state-sanctioned channels. Despite the reinstatement of Supreme People’s Court review of death penalty cases, the death penalty remained shrouded in secrecy and continued to be used extensively. Torture of detainees and prisoners remained prevalent. Millions of people had no access to justice and were forced to seek redress through an ineffective extra-legal petition system. Women and girls continued to suffer violence and discrimination.

Conservatives are usually criticized for dealing with issues in absolutes, in rights and wrongs, in black and white. Meanwhile Liberals sometimes suffer a charge of moral relativism from their opponents as they are accused of dealing in shades of grey. On their assessment of a nascent democracy suffering in horrific ravages of war, a country attempting to cast off ages of illiberalism and lawlessness, it is evident that Liberals have little sympathy for the harsh realities of an imperfect situation. Whereas on a country with an often brutal established dictatorial order, a country with a $4.3 Trillion GDP, and a country that actually bans human rights monitoring groups from operating within its borders, Liberals such as Bob Rae suggest:

“The Chinese are very concerned about stability, they’re very concerned about order. They’re very concerned about a billion people. They’re fearful of the consequences of losing that kind of control. Seems to me we just have to keep on trying to persuade them that liberty is the better way. It’s something we believe in and something we should share with them.” — Bob Rae

If you’re looking for Rae in the halls of Parliament these days, his tolerance seems selective and true concern seems focused elsewhere,

The opposition parties say it is not believable that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his senior ministers weren’t aware of Colvin’s troubling reports. If true, they could implicate Canada in the war crime of complicity in torture.

“The fact of the matter is that if there was ever at any time a view that there was a serious risk of people being mistreated, those prisoners should never have been transferred and such transfer is a breach of international law,” said Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae.

Torture is abhorrent and is a fundamental violation of human rights. I’m confident that most would agree that such a violation is terrible no matter where or against whom it occurs. Yet can we reasonably expect perfection from Afghans in an imperfect situation in their war-torn country while diminishing and invoking willful ignorance of the abuses by a modern, industrialized and enviably affluent state such as China?

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