“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
― John F. Kennedy
Amidst the fanfare of the premier’s recent junket to China, with all the talk of strengthened relations and memoranda of understanding, there was, oddly, little talk of human rights.
China’s reputation is this regard is far from stellar, which, for some, raises ethical questions about the trade partners we choose.
Premier Kathy Dunderdale said she is excited about China’s interest in our natural resources, but are there issues we should consider beyond financial considerations?
Every province in Canada likes to boast that it’s “open for business,” but do we have any qualms about who we do business with, or are we ready to jump into financial bed with anyone at all, or with the highest bidder, despite how appallingly they might treat their own citizens?
Have we forgotten the seedy underbelly of the 2008 Olympics so quickly, when the shantytowns of the poor were razed to make Beijing look more attractive in the eyes of the world? The China where those who applied for a permit to protest their evacuation were punished by being sentenced to labour camps?
Is that who we want to do business with?
Five years ago, I wrote: “China’s suppression of anyone who dared present a view not in keeping with the official China — the world power, the economic force, the cultural treasure house, the polite, civilized ‘People’s Republic’ — should give us all pause as we happily snap up made-in-China bargains at the discount store.”
Well, it should also give us pause as we contemplate welcoming Chinese investment in our natural resources sector.
“Meetings were … held with the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company and the Sinopec Group to highlight Newfoundland and Labrador’s tremendous offshore potential,” the provincial government trumpeted in a June 28 news release.
The Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) is the same company that snapped up Nexen, a Canadian oil and gas firm, in a deal that closed in February.
In writing of that deal in the National Post in a March 4 commentary, Mount Royal, Que., Liberal MP Irwin Cotler noted, “Last month, the Parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights — on which I sit — heard witness testimony, and received documentary evidence, implicating CNOOC in serious human rights violations. … The considerations on which the (Nexen deal) was based were essentially of an economic character. Human rights considerations do not appear to have been factored into the decision at all.”
Cotler points out that National Post columnist Andrew Coyne has argued that refusing to do business with China would do nothing to improve its human rights policies, but Cotler counters with this argument:
“Even if one could not change the conduct of the Chinese government, one should at least stand in solidarity with its victims. One should at least send the message that they are not alone. One should at least protect the integrity of our Canadian companies.”
A question we must ask our government is this: will human rights and China’s deplorable record in that area be a consideration before any deals are signed here? And will the views of the people of this province make a difference?
In October 2012, as the Nexen deal was being negotiated, the University of Alberta’s China Institute polled Albertans about Chinese ownership stakes in Canadian business.
As the Canadian Press reported at the time, the “survey asked about full Chinese ownership and just 15 per cent of respondents found it acceptable, with 64 per cent against.”
So much for listening to the people.
In this province, the government has touted the importance of human rights and then gone on to slash the budget of the Human Rights Commission.
On Dec. 9, 2011, then justice minister Felix Collins was celebrating International Human Rights Day by crowing about the province’s “investments.”
“Our government recognizes the important work the Human Rights Commission does every day to protect the rights and freedoms of our society,” Collins said in a news release. “Along with improvements made through the new Human Rights Act, the provincial government invests over $1 million annually for the continued operation and proactive work of the Human Rights Commission.”
Fast-forward to April 2, 2013, and human rights commissioner John Walsh was lamenting the fact that the budget had been reduced to $670,000 and the complement of staff had dropped from 11 to six, meaning people will now have to wait three years to have their cases resolved.
In response, Justice Minister Darin King said his department “has had to make some very difficult decisions as part of this budget.”
What does that mean? Human rights is something we can only afford to protect in prosperous times?
If the provincial government is not willing to “invest” in timely access to the Human Rights Commission for its own citizens, it is unlikely to lose any sleep over what happens in China if it means the loss of a lucrative business deal.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.