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History Table of Contents
1997 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1997
Canada and the Asia-Pacific Promise: Hope, Hype and Reality
Canada's National Interest in the Asia Pacific:
Trade and Investment, Political Change and International Security

Diana Bronson,
International Centre for Human Rights and
Democratic Development, Ottawa

I think the theme of this year's conference has everything to do with human rights and democratic development.

Maybe I should say a word or two about the Centre. It was created in 1988 by an Act of Parliament, following a series of consultations across the country [at which] Canadians felt it was important to be doing more active work on issues of human rights and democracy.

It's been up and running since 1990. Its first president was Ed Broadbent. It's now run by Warren Allmand.

The title of this panel is Canada's national interest and my take on that will not be how many jobs we can create by exporting to the Asia Pacific, or how much business we can do, because when it comes to human rights we have essentially the same interests as the rest of humanity.

I don't think I have to make that case. Clarence Dias made it very well yesterday.

I do want to make a comment about Canada's foreign policy, which I think has created some confusion about human rights and about whether, when we are promoting human rights, we are promoting Canadian values or international values.

In Canada's White Paper on foreign policy, called Canada in the World, the promotion of human rights indeed comes under the heading, Promotion of Canadian values and culture.

I think that's very unfortunate and misplaced.

The mandate of our Centre is defined by the International Bill of Human Rights, not by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And were we to go anywhere in the world and say, here is the Canadian Charter and really you should follow it, we would be laughed at.

Our mandate is defined by the International Bill of Human Rights, a document — the principles over 170 governments massively signed on to 1993 at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, including a number of the Asian governments, like China and Malaysia who are now contesting the universality of those values.

I'd like to speak about APEC. I won't speak a great deal about the hope and the hype around APEC, because I think those are dealt with adequately in some of the government publications outside on the table. I'll try to offer a critical assessment about the reality of APEC.

As you all know, Canada will host the APEC forum this November in Vancouver. When Prime Minister Jean Chretien presides over that assembly, oddly enough he will do so not as the elected Prime Minister of Canada. He will do so as an "economic leader."

The reason for this odd sort of nomenclature is that APEC includes Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. Indeed, it is the only international body where the three Chinas sit together. This leads APEC to adopt a very curious vocabulary.

There is no talk of nations, governments or states within APEC. There is only talk of economies. Heads of state become economic leaders. Their meeting is not a summit, like it is in the case of the Commonwealth, the Francophonie or the G-7. It is called an ELM — an economic leaders meeting.

And there's many other things you can find in APEC documents. Workers, for instance, are referred to as "human capital." But, this semantic fiction actually accomplishes much more than appeasing China.

It effectively excludes discussions that could be defined as political from any consideration at the APEC table, which of course also pleases China and some of the other dictators around the table in their capacities economic leaders.

Of all the international and regional trade bodies, APEC has been the most successful in excluding issues of human rights and democracy from its purview.

As one anti-APEC coalition based in Vancouver said in a pamphlet: "you thought NAFTA was scary, wait until you see APEC."

So, its defenders reply, APEC is a trade and investment liberalization forum, or perhaps a vehicle for economic and technical co-operation. There are other international institutions that can take care of human rights. Let this institution take care of trade, economics, business.

But trade, economics, and business have everything to do with human rights.

Particularly, for instance, when workers making the goods that are being traded are paid so little and work such long hours in such precarious conditions, because they are denied their human right of freedom of association, and attempts to form trade unions will be met with jail sentences.

Business has to do with human rights, because violations of the rule of law and corrupt practices inhibit honest business. It has to do with human rights when child labour and forced labour are used; when information cannot circulate freely. All of these are covered by international standards which Canada has helped to build and which Canada has an obligation to respect.

I'd like to speak for a moment about someone I know. His name is Muchtar Pakpahan. He's a trade union leader in Indonesia. He's know to many Canadians. He spoke last year at the Vancouver convention of the Canadian Labour Congress. He's worked extensively with the centre in the past. He's a democrat in every sense of the word.

He is currently in a hospital in Jakarta. He's requested medical treatment abroad. He's been refused, actually for a technique that was invented in Canada.

He's charged with subversion, an offence punishable by death in Indonesia. The charges against him include things like writing a poem, writing a song, a book. These are the kinds of things he's done. But his case makes a mockery of judicial process and the right to a fair trial.

Our Centre has been involved in a campaign, along with Amnesty International and some Canadian trade unions to put pressure on the Indonesian government and, indeed the Canadian government, calling upon the Indonesian government to drop the charges against him and calling upon the Canadian government to speak out publicly on his behalf.

Neither has yet happened. Indonesia is Canada's most important commercial partner in the region. We have a Foreign Minister who is strongly committed to human rights and who has been for many years.

I have the distinct impression, at least from outside the government, that Lloyd Axworthy's hands are tied.

We have, like many other democratic nations, put the human rights agenda far behind the trade agenda. This was most dramatically illustrated by Canada's failure to support a very mildly-worded resolution on China at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva this year, along with countries like France, Spain and Australia who also backed out. And this just months before Hong Kong was returned to China.

Canada's public position is that it would initiate a bilateral dialogue on human rights with China, like it has done with Cuba and Indonesia. But, we must be careful that these bilateral dialogues do not, in fact, undermine the multilateral system that Canada has worked so hard to build.

I think that this is one of the effects that APEC is having; that I will call the silencing effect.

APEC creates a kind of club of officials, ministers and especially of heads of state from these 18 members; vastly different countries, vastly different incomes, political systems. And the members of the club have different interests, perspectives and goals within APEC.

But political questions are excluded from the APEC dialogue.

That means that in the only forum where political leaders from across the Asia Pacific region meet on an annual basis there's no talk of human rights or democracy.

The other thing about APEC is that it is very explicitly founded on a government-business alliance, to the exclusion of other social groups: Labour, women, human rights groups, indigenous peoples, civil society. And this is seen as perfectly legitimate in APEC's eyes. There's no bones made about this orientation.

The Canadian government pamphlet on APEC, which you can get outside on the table, is entitled: Opening Doors for Canadian Business.

Our Government approvingly quotes the APEC business advisory council; the only non-governmental body to have any status within APEC. And their slogan is: APEC means business.

Or, as Janet Spero, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, said: "through APEC, we aim to get governments out of the way, opening the way for business to do business."

That's a pretty frightening statement for a government official to be making. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with increasing business opportunities in the region; there's nothing wrong with promoting increased trade and investment nor, indeed, with the idea and spirit behind the Canadian Year of the Asia Pacific.

The problem arises when business is the only constituency that is being consulted and their interests are the only interests that are looked after.

Despite some recent inclusive rhetoric coming out from APEC and some genuine efforts made by our own Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, other interests have been overwhelmingly excluded from discussions about APEC's agenda.

This at a time when citizens from around the world and, perhaps most of all from Asia, are demanding a say in their governments' trade and investment policies.

APEC claims that its goals are equitable development and sustainable growth. Well, these cannot be achieved without providing for participation of marginalized sectors of the population.

And this is not some radical demand.

This is the well-though-out prescription of the United Nations Development Program for alleviating poverty.

If you want to alleviate poverty the most important thing to do is to facilitate democratic participation. Surely, the alleviation of poverty should be at least one of the goals of increasing growth.

But, people cannot participate in APEC when they are barred from meetings and when APEC's documents are overwhelming classified as secret.

An additional fact in Canada this year is that we have no idea how much this event is costing.

Someone in our office who has tried to find out through Access to Information. We have been told that the budget is fluid; the budget is rolling and that there is no budget. All of this in a time of fiscal restraint.

Various organizations from across the country will be organizing a "People's Summit" this November, and the Canadian government, to its credit, has provided some funding.?This is a first in the history of APEC.

But, if Canada is to be serious about increasing participation and about broadening the dialogue, about deepening the spirit of the community, as it says it is, it must be prepared to really engage the citizens — not only the citizens of Canada — but those of its partners in APEC, who are unable to engage their own governments because they're not allowed.

Dialogue and participation of civil society have in many senses become the buzz words of the international development

literature of the 1990s. And to some, this just means choose a few hand-picked academics and businesses and we'll have the participation that we require.

But real engagement with civil society, I'd argue, is something quite different, and perhaps captured in a quote by Frederick Douglass, the 19th century slave and abolitionist.

He said:

"Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without

ploughing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful road of many of its waters."

Involvement with civil society in APEC will not be simple. It will be fiercely resisted by some of APEC's most powerful members. It may offend our commercial partners. Not all

groups, from Canada and abroad, will be diplomatic in their critiques of the APEC agenda.

But without that engagement, APEC is destined to become little more than some trans-Pacific meritocracy of businesses telling governments what they can and cannot do.

Without that engagement, the social dimension of globalization will be neglected and we will, indeed, move towards the lowest common denominator.

We hear constantly that trade and investment liberalization will eventually lead to political liberalization, to democracy and human rights. And that this is the way to increase Canada's influence in the region.

But, from where I sit the influence is going the other way. It is China and Indonesia that are watering down our discourse on human rights, rather than Canada strengthening theirs.