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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Harper stance on human rights scrutinized as China visit begins

December 3, 2009

By David Akin, Canwest News Service December 1, 2009

ABOARD CANADIAN FORCES FLIGHT 01 ? As Prime Minister Stephen Harper jets
his way to his first official visit in China, many in Canada wonder if
Harper will talk as tough on human rights once he's there as he did upon
winning office three years ago.

For Harper and for many of the Conservatives he grew up with during the
years of the Reform party and the Canadian Alliance, China once was to
be given no quarter for jailing dissidents, persecuting Christians and
dealing harshly with Tibet. For Conservatives, human rights trumped
trade and Harper said so himself in 2007.

"There are those in the Opposition who will say, you know, China is an
important country, so we shouldn't really protest these things . . . so
maybe someday we'll be able to sell more goods there. I think that's
irresponsible," Harper, then prime minister, said in 2007. "I think the
government of Canada, when a Canadian citizen is ill-treated and when
the rights of a Canadian citizen need to be defended, I think it's
always the obligation of the government of Canada to vocally and
publicly stand up for that Canadian citizen. That is what we will
continue to do."

Well, here he is in China. He'll meet all the top Chinese leaders. Is he
going to "vocally and publicly" stand up for human rights?

A coalition of Canadian human rights groups on Tuesday pressed Harper to
do just that. The Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China, which
includes Amnesty International, PEN Canada, the Canada Tibet Committee
and others, sent a letter to Harper on the eve of his trip East, saying:
"We urge you, as prime minister, to take the opportunity of your
upcoming dialogue with Chinese leaders to show that Canada, along with
the rest of the Western democracies, views human rights as a central
plank of its relationship with China.

"We entreat you to speak out, confident that your personal intervention
will give hope and strength not only to political and human rights
activists in prison in China, but to all Canadians who share our belief
that freedom of expression is both a sign of strength and a human right
that cannot be compromised."

Dimitri Soudas, now Harper's chief spokesman but also one of Harper's
longest-serving advisers, conceded to reporters Monday that while human
rights may have once trumped other issues, it is now part of the broader
mix of issues on this week's agenda.

"One issue doesn't trump the other while having frank, respectful and
positive discussions on certain issues . . . that doesn't prevent one to
express concern on others," Soudas said.

"So I would simply say that since taking office, the position of the
prime minister and of this government has been consistent. It has
sometimes been interpreted differently, but it has been very consistent
since the beginning."

It doesn't seem that way to outside observers.

"More recently, that (early rhetoric) seems much more muted," said Alex
Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. "I think
there's a perception that the criticism has faded and this concern about
paying primary attention to the trading relationship once again seems to
have become dominant."

The Canadian that Harper was referring to in that 2007 statement was
Huseyincan Celil, a Uyghur imam of dual Chinese and Canadian
citizenship. In 2006, while visiting Uzbekistan, he was arrested and
subsequently deported to China, where he had been convicted in absentia
of terrorism and sentenced to life in prison. Canadian officials believe
that, at the very least, the Chinese have mistaken him for someone else
and that he should be returned to Canada.

Celil, in fact, arrived in Canada first in 2001 as a refugee from China
where he stood accused of murders and terrorist acts Chinese authorities
alleged he committed beginning in 1994. But in 2006, Celil returned to
China to try to get his three of his children out of the country. It was
a terrible miscalculation and he now sits in jail.

No one thinks Harper is going to come home with Celil or effect the
release of any other political prisoners during his three days here.

But many are hopeful that Harper's visit is the beginning of a
rebalancing of the Canada-China relationship.

"The Chinese are very concerned about stability," said Liberal MP Bob
Rae, who first visited China more than 25 years ago. "They're very
concerned about order. They're very concerned about a billion people.
They're fearful of the consequences of losing that kind of control.
Seems to me we just have to keep on trying to persuade them that liberty
is the better way. It's something we believe in and something we should
share with them."

"What we need," says Amnesty's Neve, "is an approach to human rights
that takes account of the entirety of that relationship and doesn't
relegate it to a file that one or two mid-level diplomats at Foreign
Affairs are supposed to think about from time to time but makes it a
paramount consideration in all aspects of how we have dealing with China."

A good first step for Amnesty and others is an insistence that
independent human rights workers be allowed into China to conduct their
research and monitoring with no government interference. Neither Amnesty
International nor any other human rights group has ever been allowed
into the country do any monitoring or research.

"We've repeatedly said to the Canadian government, amongst others,
that's one indicator amongst many others of the state of human rights in
China, that they remain so defiant on that," Neve said. "They remain
absolutely defiant about granting that kind of access for on-the-ground,
independent, fact-finding."

Chinese leaders are not unprepared for these demands from Western
politicians, says Rae, who dealt with them while he was Ontario's premier.

"They're not unused to this discussion," Rae said. "They're not afraid
of it. There's no reason for us to be afraid of it. It's part of an
ongoing engagement not only with the Chinese leadership but Chinese
society generally about how a freer economy ? in . . . our entire
historical experience ? generally leads to a freer society and that
freer society generally leads to a freer politics."
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