harper guts human rights language

In recent weeks, employees of Canada's Foreign Service have been busy deleting certain politically charged terms from official documents, and replacing them with expressions more acceptable to their Conservative masters.

In recent weeks, employees of Canada’s Foreign Service have been busy deleting certain politically charged terms from official documents, and replacing them with expressions more acceptable to their Conservative masters.

According to Embassy magazine, international humanitarian law is now simply international law, gender equality is now equality of men and women, and child soldiers are now children in armed conflict.

Whenever a government monkeys about with the language, be certain that the intent of the changes is neither cosmetic nor inconsequential. Systematic changes in the wording of documents reflect a direct shift in policy. And in the nit-picking milieu of international diplomacy, where words speak louder than actions and every syllable is weighed and weighed again, these changes are a clear signal to the world that Canadian foreign policy has moved sharply to the right.

In an e-mail to Embassy, anonymous staffers at Foreign Affairs revealed this shift in policy, and expressed their fear that Canada’s Conservative government is quietly signalling an ambivalence toward the rights of child soldiers, a weakened commitment to humanitarian law and a reactionary attitude toward gender rights.

Moving on the specific as well as the general, the Conservatives are pressing ahead with an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in their bid to keep Omar Khadr, Canadian child soldier and victim of crimes against humanity, in the illegal US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. Canada is the only western country not to request repatriation of its nationals from Guantanamo, and the only one not to protest the detention of child soldiers.

Two courts have now ordered the Conservatives to push for Khadr’s speedy repatriation. Their case against compliance with these orders is baseless, and they will surely lose yet again, but they may succeed in their bid for a stay of proceedings until the Supreme Court reaches a decision. Since this would effectively seal Khadr up in Guantanamo until the US finally closes it down, it would be nothing more nor less than a brilliant stroke of stubborn mean-spiritedness.

Pressed for an explanation of Canada’s Orwellian tampering with diplomatic language, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon told Embassy, “In some circumstances the changes are just semantic. In other circumstances, we’re going to be changing policies so that they reflect what Canada’s values are and the values Canadians said they supported when they supported us in the last election.”

Take a look at Cannon’s language there. At no point does he suggest that his party campaigned on a promise to excise the word humanitarian from its correspondence, or that it would ban the expression child soldier. Instead, he tells us that when Canadians voted Conservative – to the very limited extent that they did – they didn’t so much endorse a list of spoken policies as embrace a set of implied values.

Is this how you understood democracy?

Errol Mendes, professor of international law at the University of Ottawa and a leading expert on human rights told the CBC Radio program The Current that the ban on words like humanitarian and child soldier is “a veiled attack on the international criminal code,” and calls for the Conservatives to come clean with Canadians, and make their policy changes public.

A sinister picture emerges here. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives believe the support of about a third of voters in the last election constitutes a mandate for conservative values, the nature of which is to be announced as necessary. For now, those values lead them to reverse decades of Canadian support for international humanitarian law, gender equality, and the rights of children in armed conflicts.

They are making these moves without public announcement, without debate, as quietly as they can. To top it all off, they’re proving their point at the expense of a young Canadian who has been tortured, abused and held illegally in a notorious foreign prison.

In short, the compassionate well-regarded country for which we used to stitch maple leaves on our backpacks has been highjacked by a right-wing extremist movement inimical to the values of most Canadians. Lacking a parliamentary majority, they are perfecting the art of circumventing Parliament to impose their agenda, or worse yet, their values, on the country they love to hate.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.