Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Department of Foreign & Missionary Affairs

The line between foreign and domestic policy is often blurred if it exists at all. Often the actions of states that seem to take on a purely external character are, in fact, impelled by explicitly national considerations. Refugee interdiction policies, while operating within the international realm, are designed with the domestic in mind. They preempt the arrival of refugees at the national frontier, prevent the crossing of borders and negate any potential state responsibility in the process. The propping up of foreign regimes - a popular policy of the West - has been geared to the 'national interest', preserving a global equilibrium of favourable to the maintenance of the existing international order ensuring the security of the state and the continued functioning of international economic processes. Similarly, foreign policy may be crafted with national political circumstances in mind, designed to boost the electoral success of an incumbent or play to the party base. The Harper government's staunchly pro-Israel policy is perhaps the clearest example of this and has been particularly effective as a wedge in tightly contested electoral ridings. By playing to a relatively small but politically active and vocal constituency - the Jewish diaspora - the Conservatives have been able to pry away several key GTA seats, especially in Toronto. While the approach violates Canada's traditional stance as an honest broker between Israel and Palestine, pushing away potential allies and, as it has been argued, costing Canada a seat in the UN Security Council, the policy was never good domestic politics. The Conservatives define good policy by the yardstick of electoral utility, not sound evidence or ethical considerations.

Religion in the Hierarchy of Human Rights

And so it is with the Conservative's asinine, half-baked and (almost certainly) entirely ineffective office of religious freedoms. Certainly there are many places in the world need protection from both the state and other religious majorities. The map below provides a quick glance at areas where anti-Christian laws or persecution if prevalent. In essence, the places [indicated in white] where persecution does not exist are those states with large Christian populations themselves. This map, however, is also highly illustrative of a number of problems in the Conservative government's push for religious freedom abroad.

First, the countries in which Christians are persecuted are largely countries with abysmal human rights records in general. At the top of the list are North Korea and much of the Arab and Muslim states of the Middle East and North Africa. India and China are also added to this list, but they each pose their own unique challenges. As such, what is missing in most of these states is not religious freedom on its own, but freedom in general. There is an overlap here in which religious background is one fact but in which gender, sexuality or class form grounds of equal weight for persecution. Indeed, while there are restrictions on Christian practice in these states - for instance, outright bans - Christians fair far better than other groups, particularly homosexuals where, apart from a ban on homosexual acts, there are heavy penalties, including death.

The map to the left provides a quick view of LGBT rights across the globe. Blue shades indicate advanced rights, such as same-sex marriage. Orange and red indicate counties with extreme persecution. Dark orange indicates the death penalty.

What these states require is not an bureau of the Canadian embassy devoted to ensuring freedom of religion is respected. Indeed, the sheer lack of civil, political and human rights alone renders this objective essentially meaningless. How such an office could promote one set of rights while the rest are non-existent is not laid out. Rather, what is required is a comprehensive commitment to human rights at large, without the creation of a hierarchy rights. As it stands, the government's position places religious freedom above rights based upon characteristics inherent within the individual which are immutable, such as race, gender or sexuality.

There are other concerns about the effectiveness of an office of religious freedoms. Of the countries with the greatest persecution of Christians, one is the planet's sole surviving Stalinist state (North Korea), another is a an Islamic theocracy (Iran) and another is the pseudo-Islamic dictatorship in Saudi Arabia. Outside of miracles, a deepening Arab Spring or a NATO-led campaign of regime change, protecting religious practice in these states is a non-starter. The same is true in the globe's two most populous states: India, where religious tensions are a factor of life, and China, where trade has traditionally trumped human rights as a priority at DFAIT. Canada is unlikely to push hard against these growing global powerhouses and, even if it were, it is unlikely to have much effect. China is likely to sternly rebuke Harper were he to push his already strained luck.

With much of the Islamic world and the Middle East, as well as India and China off the table, there are few areas in which Canada is likely to have much impact. Essentially what's left is Indonesia and a few African states. It is possible Canada could leverage some change by tying development aid to religious protection, but given Canada's monetary commitment to such projects, the chances of that carrot being effective are slim. In essence, if this plan does come to fruition, it will be stillborn and useless, a mostly hollow and symbolic show of unity and support for the world's religions.

Stephen Harper in the Missionary Position

Of course, the whole thing is meant as a paper tiger because it is entirely intended for domestic consumption. It has the appearance of sharp teeth, with an official sounding (and very high level diplomatic name) and the resources of the Department of Foreign Affairs behind it, yet it is a mere facade with out much in the way of foundation. It is, following the usual rational Harper calculus, a craven attempt to sway an electorate by an emotional appeal. Particularly of interest are new Canadians who may have fled countries in which their religious beliefs were restricted. It is unclear, however, if this issue had an impact on voting behavior. The other target his the Conservative base, those Evangelical Christians who, having been ignored on issues close to their hearts - need to be tossed a crucifix now and then. Upset with Harper's failure to re-open debates on abortion and gay rights, the pledge to protect religion abroad is a mild sedative to calm the base. It's a foreign policy designed for domestic purposes.

While the the proposed office of religious freedoms is expounded as a means to protecting all religions abroad, the impulse reveals a proselytizing streak in Harper. Given the domestic audiences and the countries already listed as targets, the office would essentially become the arm of DFAIT devoted for protecting Christians abroad. The effects would be overwhelmingly pro-Christian particularly as the most evident targets so far are developing countries, particularly in or near the Islamic world. Moreover, it is unlikely that such an office would attempt to protect the rights of non-Christians -- say, for instance, Muslims in France - where democratic states are taking a hard-line against Islam. It would, in effect, attempt to shore up and promote Christianity in those states where it is on the margins. Perhaps this explains Harper's missionary zeal for the project.

While a commitment to promoting rights abroad is noble, the means adopted by the Harper government - as was evident with the push for child and maternal health - come with considerable ideological baggage. In this case, the government is seeking only to promote the kinds of rights it deems worthy of protection, while excluded others - gender, sexuality - from protection. Moreover, the approach fails to realize that the absence of one set of rights is usually accompanied by the deprivation of others. It is the symptom of a deeper malaise. The proposed office further highlights the myopic worldview that distorts Canada's foreign policy when it is constructed by narrow ideological considerations. Canada should be taking a holistic approach to human rights, not placing them in competition or hierarchies.

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