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Ed Fast Goes to China

by Carole Samdup

As the number of self-immolation protests continues to rise in Tibet, this week reaching a heart-breaking 115, China has responded by launching a police crackdown, increasing electronic surveillance, and interrupting the flow of information between Tibetans and monitoring groups in India and elsewhere. Their actions come as no surprise to anyone.

What did come as a surprise was an announcement by the Government of Canada that Trade Minister Ed Fast is headed to China this week to promote Canadian exports of sophisticated information and communications technology – the very same technology that enables the security apparatus of a single-party state to identify and arrest human rights defenders, pro-democracy campaigners, trade union organizers and political dissidents.

While not weaponry in the conventional sense, advanced information and communications technology is derived from, or mirrors, military and police “command and control” communications systems technology. These systems include a wide range of components, sub-systems, products and software required for monitoring and controlling telephone and Internet communication, collecting and storing data, and analysing intelligence. While they certainly do have legitimate civilian and security objectives, they can also be the instruments of human rights violations in countries without the democratic checks and balances we take for granted here in Canada. China is one of those countries.

This is not an argument against trade with China. But it is a reminder that international trade does not operate in a silo. The Government of Canada has an obligation to ensure that it does not unwittingly undermine human rights when it conducts business abroad. Minister Fast’s own Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade oversees export control regulations that prohibit the export of goods “…used to commit human rights violations”. Compliance with such regulations should require demonstrated efforts to conduct due diligence before the transfer of sensitive technology, not after evidence of abuse is reported.

Already, there are plenty of concrete examples to illustrate how information and communications technology has been used to undermine rather than promote human rights in Tibet. In a 2009 University of Toronto study entitled Tracking GhostNet, it was revealed that electronic surveillance originating from China had infiltrated the communications systems of several western governments (including Canada) as well as the exiled Tibetan government, based in India. The report linked the subsequent detention of a Tibetan rights activist at the Nepal-Tibet border to the intrusion.

Last year, as the number of self-immolation protests in Tibet skyrocketed, Chinese authorities seized hundreds of satellite dishes and receivers in eastern Tibet, destroyed them and replaced them with smaller versions that receive only state-controlled programs. Some Tibetans have since voiced concerns that the new equipment is equipped with cameras and recording devices to provide authorities with real-time surveillance.

Only last month, researchers reported that Tibetan activists had been targeted by a form of Android malware that was able to record their contacts, call logs, SMS messages, geo-location, and phone data. And at the same time, Human Rights Watch issued a lengthy report describing China’s plan for a new “security grid” in Tibet that “significantly increases surveillance and monitoring, particularly of “special groups” in the region – former prisoners and those who have returned from the exile community in India, among others”. The new grid is expected to include advanced controls over the use of cell phones, the Internet, and micro-blogs often used to send information to monitoring organizations outside of Tibet.

While there is no evidence that Canadian technology played a part in any of these examples, it is impossible to say that it did not, particularly without any monitoring or evaluation processes in place. More importantly, the examples raise a reasonable expectation that future exports of information and communications technology to China might contribute to future violations of the human rights to free expression, to privacy, and to security of the person in restive Tibet.

Even if Canada has little power to influence Chinese policy in Tibet, at the minimum it should adopt a “do no harm” approach when establishing sector priorities for Canadian exports. We cannot argue that we didn’t know.

Carole Samdup is the Executive Director of the Canada Tibet Committee. She can be reached at ctcoffice@tibet.ca.