So Where Is Canada’s International Human Rights Action Plan?

At the end of November the federal government unveiled a new international trade policy, describing it as a “sea change in the way Canada’s diplomatic assets are deployed around the world.” For something as significant as a sea change it received remarkably little fanfare at the time. In fact it seemed to go almost unnoticed. Of course it was nearly impossible for anything other than Rob Ford’s ongoing theatrics or the latest revelations from the Senate/PMO scandal to attract even a modicum of media or political attention.

The Global Markets Action Plan marks a move towards what the government has termed “economic diplomacy” now being the hallmark of Canada’s presence on the world stage. The priority is clear; under the new Action Plan “all of Canada’s diplomatic assets are harnessed to support the pursuit of commercial success by Canadian companies and investors.”

There is, of course, nothing wrong with putting in place a comprehensive, strategic plan for trade promotion and bolstering Canada’s commercial interests in established, emerging and new markets around the world.

What is notable and deeply disappointing, however, is that the new plan does not give even a passing nod to the importance of pursuing greater trade and investment in ways that promote and strengthen respect for human rights, protection of the environment and other fundamental values. The words ‘human rights’ appear nowhere in the Action Plan. Environment appears only in connection with concepts such as ‘regulatory environment’. There is no mention at all of justice, rule of law, women, Indigenous peoples or labour rights. Not even once.

Troubling, to say the least. So perhaps we instead look for a companion piece; let’s call it an International Human Rights Action Plan? Doesn’t exist. And there is no hint of any plans to unveil such a document in the near or distant future. What we are left with is a retooling of Canadian foreign policy, through which all of the country’s diplomatic assets are to be lined up behind the singular goal of pursuing business, with no explicit or implicit recognition of the essential links that must be forged between the economy and such crucial values as rights, justice, equity and sustainability.

And this is not just theoretical. There are already ample and growing examples of the ways that human rights are being left off the table when it comes to boosting trade.

As I wrote in my column Sold Out: Trade Trumps Human Rights in Canada’s Relationship With Colombia, an initial sign of hope that the new Canada/Colombia Free Trade Agreement would herald a new commitment to taking the fraught relationship between human rights and trade seriously has been largely betrayed. More recently, a free trade deal has been inked (but is not yet in force) between Canada and Honduras. Human rights concerns abound in Honduras, but this agreement does not even pay human rights the lip service we saw in the Colombia deal.

At the same time, the government has also firmly resisted any initiatives that would put in place an effective framework for holding Canadian companies accountable for their human rights performance when they go abroad. This has been a particular concern with Canadian extractive companies. Canada leads the world when it comes to mining. It is now virtually impossible to find a corner of the planet where a Canadian headquartered or registered mining company is not exploring, seeking licenses or digging for ores, gems and minerals. Those companies, small and large, do not shy away from the front lines of armed conflict, entrenched human rights violations and deep poverty. If they operate in responsible and sustainable ways they can help boost human rights protection. If not they can cause or at least contribute to serious human rights violations. But the government refuses to pursue meaningful law, policy and institutional reform that would ensure the former and avoid the latter.

A modest, but important piece of private member’s legislation, Bill C-300, came close to establishing just such a framework in 2010, but was narrowly defeated by just six votes. Government MPs were roundly opposed, as were a significant number of Liberal MPs at the time (even though the Bill itself originated with Liberal MP John Mackay).

More recently, a coalition of Canadian human rights, development, labour and faith groups, the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, has launched a campaign for strengthened corporate accountability, Open for Justice. But to date, again, there is no sign of government support.

The Global Markets Action Plan would have a much greater chance of success if it promised to nations around the world that an increased Canadian business presence in their communities would be backed up by meaningful, enforceable commitments to human rights, labour rights and the environment. By once again leaving those concerns to the side the Action Plan instead reinforces growing reticence and opposition in many communities, where there is little or no confidence that when a Canadian mining company shows up it will be of sustainable local benefit.

It is not just a matter of considering the human rights impact of Canadian companies going abroad. Increasingly, Canadians are faced with considering the human rights consequences of foreign companies investing and operating in Canada. Similarly, law and policy does not ensure that human rights concerns will be central to decisions about approving large-scale foreign investment in Canada. That was certainly the case with the controversial takeover of Calgary-based petroleum giant Nexen by the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company in the face of troubling allegations that CNOOC had possibly been implicated in human rights violations in Tibet and Burma.

More recently the government has enthusiastically courted what could be a sizable investment in the Alberta oilsands from Malaysia’s Petronas, while studiously not commenting on outstanding allegations that the company has contravened UN sanctions against Sudan by refueling Sudanese military jets at airstrips in Darfur.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has sought to dampen concern that what the government has called a “sea change” is all that big a deal. He assured Canadians that any suggestion that this change means that Canada’s stance on such vital global concerns as human rights or nuclear disarmament would diminish was “extremist fear mongering.” More reassuring would be to see a true commitment to developing the building blocks that are needed to put human rights at the centre of trade policy and at the heart of doing business. And why not release an International Human Rights Action Plan? Extremist or not, that is what Canada has long championed on the world stage. And the world most certainly still needs it.


  1. Alex, I fully support your call on the Canadian government to release an International Human Rights Action Plan? What are they waiting for?
    Is this really a “seachange”? I thought seachange, treechange, & hillchange refers to the revaluation of one’s life. The Aussie’s adopted the term; from the Bard’s The Tempest, and produced a TV show which described the life of those that migrated from the city to the rural coastal communities. I have only heard the term, “seachange”, used to depict the transformation of the individual into a more holistic self rather than the greediest most opportunistic and possibly, lawless self. Not only has the government used the wrong termiology, it has actually developed a foreign policy which places the value of capitalism above non-material values such as Indigenous rights and claims, social and environmental values, culture and spiritual beliefs. I just can’t imagine how the law and justice would ever find a place in such a scheme unless it too was able to be corrupted.
    If our government really wants to give the term “seachange” some meaning and develop a comprehensible, sustainable, and respectful foreign policy look how Bhutan has evolved from GNP and GDP ($$$$ product and services) to the development of indicators for Gross National Happiness (GNH). Our foreign policy model must be multidimensional and be seen to be thus, in writing, and include not only economic development, but good governance (law and justice), environmental preservation, and a game plan for dealing decisively with human rights violations by Canadian Corporations going abroad.