Abroad Thoughts from Home

with Ian Townsend-Gault
Director of the Centre for Asian Legal Studies
Faculty of Law, University of British Columbia
Vancouver, Canada

International Civitas and Canada's 2012 Budget

International Civitas and Canada's 2012 Budget


Ian Townsend-Gault


Those of us who devote the greater part of our professional lives to working in Asia have long known that Canada's international standing, especially in East and Southeast Asia, has been in steady decline for more than a decade. The federal budget tabled on March 29, 2012 will do nothing to halt, much less reverse, this trend. Indeed, it could give it fresh impetus. This is not only undesirable, it is also unnecessary. Such an outcome serves neither Canada nor the international community as a whole.


The international system, legal or political, depends on engagement. Countries are obviously heavily engaged where their interests are or may be directly affected. This obviously leads them to take sides, promoting an initiative or attempting to stand in its way. But there is such a thing as disinterested or altruistic engagement, playing a role to promote the general good, as opposed to advocating for one's own country or one's allies. And if this kind of effort results in a strengthening of the international system, then all states benefit, always excepting those who put their own (usually short term) self-interest before any other consideration. Canada's contributions to the international commonweal are innumerable. For example, this country is not plagued by landmines: there are probably none within its borders. But Ottawa played a major role in the adoption of the convention intended to see a ban on the deployment of these hideous weapons. Neither the country nor its citizens would be associated in anyone's mind with the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and aggression. But Canada played a pivotal role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court. To use another example, the claimant states have obviously the greatest stakes in the resolution of the various island disputes in the waters of East and Southeast Asia. But all coastal states have an interest in developing the relevant rules of international law promoting maritime cooperation, insisting on strict interpretation of the rules pertaining to the generation of zones of jurisdiction in the oceans. Canada has funded a number of initiatives designed to reduce regional tensions and promote cooperation in its place.


It is for reasons like this that many heard the government's determination as expressed in the Budget speech to review Canada's participation in a variety of international forums with a view to considering whether or not to continue. If that review is to be conducted as exercises in bean-counting, that is, a demand to see a clear correlation between an international initiative and Canadian interests, the result could be devastating. It would be akin to saying that the only countries with an interest in human rights conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women are those where there is discrimination against women: s.15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensures that this does not happen in this country so, this line of reasoning might go, why do we need to be a party to this Convention and to participate in its operation?


The answer to this question lies first in the need for a genuine international consensus on how the rights of minorities are to be protected. Put another way, the situations of those groups in society which have been traditionally disadvantaged must now receive a united and international effort aimed at amelioration. Second, the courts of Canada now draw, to a great extent, on international norms and concepts, as well as the jurisprudence of other countries (just as they draw on Canada's). Any move to detach Canada from the international community would be highly regressive, and scarcely in the national interest.


The Budget also called for cuts to the budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. This budgetary erosion has been going on since the 1990s and again, those of us who work extensively abroad know how debilitating this can be for the staff engaged in Canada's diplomatic missions. It also sends curious signals to foreign governments. If, for example, the Canadian ambassador arrives at an official reception in a vehicle very much inferior to that of others, one of two conclusions are likely to be drawn. First, the government of Canada does not value this ambassador, so why should we? Alternatively, the government of Canada does not regard our country in sufficient esteem to equip its diplomats as others do. Can either inference possibly be in Canada's national interest? You join the club, you play by the rules, unless you can persuade the majority to change them. I was staying with the ambassador of a small Southeast Asian country in the mid-1990s when something of a media onslaught targeting what was perceived to be "high off the hog" diplomats took place (actually rather amusing, considering the antics I have witnessed on the part of some journalists). There was a slight atmosphere of despair at what the embassy staffers perceived to be not only a complete lack of understanding of the circumstances in which they had to work, but also a rather contemptible inclination to play up to the notion that public servants working abroad must, by definition, be on some sort of boondoggle. That was the very term the CBC in Vancouver used to describe a trade visit to Asia by the, then, newly elected NDP Premier Mike Harcourt when first elected in 1991. No doubt the term was not meant literally, but it betrayed an attitude of mind which simply has to change.

In This Issue

International Civitas and Canada's 2012 Budget
Ian Townsend-Gault

A Pacific Mystery
Brent Sutherland

Iceberg(s) Dead Ahead?
Retreating Sea Ice and the Prospects for Rising Navigation in the Arctic

Clive Schofield

Hijab Prohibition from a Children's Rights Perspective
Two Case Studies of France and Switzerland in the European Court of Human Rights

Shiva Olyaei

Sovereignty's Missing Moral Imperative
C.G. Bateman


Long before the 2012 budget, however, there were unmistakable signs that the Conservative government was prepared, even eager, to view foreign policy from the standpoint of dogma (one hesitates to dignify it as doctrine), as opposed to a pragmatic acceptance of the reality of doing business with the rest of the world. The government's policy, we were told, was that it should "facilitate transactions." It would not otherwise become involved: no grand policy strategies of the sort that brought about the Landmines Convention, or the International Criminal Court. The private sector would make the running. The trouble is, most of the rest of the world does not view the role of government in that way at all. In particular, this approach is completely antithetical to that of the countries of Asia. One can be out of step with one's peers if one is in a position of strength. Is Canada in this position? The country is far from weak, but not in a position to dictate the terms of international engagement to the rest of the world. University teachers are used to hearing the private sector advocate that their institutions would benefit from being run on sound business principles. But universities are not businesses, and neither are governments. They cannot be administered properly on the basis of abstract rules which take no account of the reality - like it or loathe it - in which they exist.


It is all very well for politicians to advocate "making do with less", but there comes a time when less input results in less output. In the University, this would take the form of cutting courses, programs, or even whole departments. This is not to say that no cow is too sacred to be sacrificed. But it is one thing to wield the axe to get rid of dead wood, and quite another to lose a living and breathing and valued part of what the University was established to provide simply because government won't fund it (but that government will, of course, satisfy the demands of other calls on the public purse). If Canada wants to participate to its fullest extent in the international community, it must play by the international community's rules, and these do not envisage the role of government as merely "facilitating transactions." It may be that some in official Ottawa think that this country might change that, but surely the humiliation over the failure under Harper to secure that seat on the Security Council suggests otherwise.


And it is perhaps instructive to consider why Canada lost that vote to Portugal. Generally, I would have thought that the country's transition from engaged international citizen with a broad spectrum of friends - Ottawa broke ranks with a number of Western governments in the early 90s by upgrading its diplomatic relations, which had never been broken, with Hanoi, and Washington does not like its friendship with the government in Cuba - to a more partisan, self-interested approach would annoy many. And then there were the somewhat inexplicable decisions which carried a political price, the benefits of which are rather hard to discern. Shortly after the vote on Security Cancel membership, someone close to the Prime Minister remarked that it was doubtful that our head of government was losing any sleep over the matter. Two points: first, he should have been lying awake at night after night pondering this unmistakable snub, and second, if Canada didn't care one way or the other, why did it try so hard to lobby for the prize? As they say, it doesn't compute.


The current Conservative government decided not to support the United Nations resolution on the rights of indigenous peoples. This annoyed many members of the international community because the previous (Liberal) government lobbied strongly in favour of it. Admittedly a new government is not bound by each and every decision or stance of its predecessor, but there is such a thing as continuity at least in foreign policy, and in an area where that country has already made a strong commitment.


All too often, Canadians assume that their world vision is more or less that of the rest of the world. But this is simply not true. I was once at a symposium (in Canada) where someone asked a panel their opinion of the "Team Canada" trade missions, very popular with the government of Jean Chretien (1993-2003). That opinion was none too high (based on what, one wonders?). I commented from the floor that the opinion of a group of Canadian academics was more or less irrelevant: these missions were designed to make an impact on the government and business sectors of the target countries. Surely their success or failure could only be gauged by consulting those for whom they were intended, a group which included no one in that room that afternoon.


Not to be seen in the international community is not to be valued - how could it be otherwise? Similarly, obvious signs of disengagement or lack of commitment sends signals which are not difficult to read. Shortly after the devastating natural disasters struck Japan last year I attended a meeting between security experts from that country and Canada. Despite being deeply marked by recent events, our guests were engaged, prepared, and participated fully. This was in contrast to the behaviour of some on the host side who seemed to find more of interest on their smart phones than the meeting they were ostensibly attending. They could not have sent a message of less than full commitment had they not bothered to show up at all. If some of us on the Canadian side noted this discourteous behaviour, we can only suppose that our guests did likewise, and drew the appropriate conclusions. It appears that Etiquette 101 is no longer a compulsory subject in the academies of the Department of National Defence. Another sign of budgetary exigency? Or can it be that the individuals concerned were not taught how to behave in gatherings such as this where they were, in a sense, representing their country.


Finally, in his budget speech the Minister of Finance made great play of Canada's relative financial security amidst international monetary turmoil, and rightly so. And the cut to the budget of the Canadian International Development Agency, what message was that intended to send to the world, other than "We are doing very well, thank you, and we are going to share our largesse with fewer of you than before"? It is as if the Canadian role in promoting international development and the Millennium Development Goals, in particular, had never been.

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