Rae: Canada Has Its Own Voice on the International Scene

Hon. Bob Rae spoke this morning at the University of Western Ontario Law School on A Changing World: New Directions for Canadian Foreign Policy. What follows are notes (not a transcript) from his talk.

Law Students and Public Policy

Rae said that Canadian foreign policy as an issue that is a significant one in the politics of the country.  As soon to be lawyers, the issue of Canada’s role in the world is a critical concern to all of us, and one that has tremendous opportunities as law students.

There is no clearer area of public policy where the ideological contrast between parties can be demonstrated.   Western has produced some of the great legal minds of our time.  Justice Rand, a former Dean of the school, made considerable contributions to the foreign policy of this country.

What is Canada’s Role?

Rae asked whether Is Canada’s role in the world is to essentially ally itself with the U.S. in terms of American foreign policy and position in the world.   Or is Canada’s voice in the world one of greater independence – one in which we look to Canada’ expressing strong support for multilateralism, international law, and support for multilateral institutions in relation to trade relationships.

It seems over the past 50 years there has been an implicit debate in the country over these issues, and that Harper has now made this debate explicit.  His view in the world is quite simple:  Canada is a country whose values and interests are tied up with the U.S., who is our most important trade partner.  Our primary role is therefore to be an ally and supporter of the U.S.  Other areas of foreign policy are all subordinate to that.  That is the key relationship, the driving force between Canada’s role in the world.

This is a view that puts a great deal of emphasis on military power, and expects that Canada has to play a much stronger role in the military side of the equation.  It downplays Canada’s traditional role at UN in supporting international institutions.  Our efforts against land mines and in support of the International Criminal Court are examples of this.

War in Iraq

Rae pointed to two speeches of by Howard Hampton and Stephen Harper at time of Iraq war.  His point was made by a choice made by Chretien at the time – Canada was not willing to participate in invasion of Iraq.  Harper saying yes we will.  Interesting enough, the words he used were borrowed from President of Australia.

Canada’s decision not to participate in the Iraq war was a defining moment, and was based on two major factors:

  1. The existence of WMDs
  2. An imminent threat

The Canadian government did not believe Saddam had WMDs, or that the evidence supporting assertion was in any way adequate.   The U.S. relying on secret information, but the information provided from Hans Blix could not justify assertion.

If Canada didn’t have that information, it would still have to establish some other idea as to why it is justified as act of outside invasion.  Canada’s position was clear – but the U.S. and U.K. was emphatically on the other side that whether or not there were WMDs, the risk justified invasion.

It took courage for Chretien and Graham to explain to Canadians why we were not joining our two closest allies.  Now people say it’s a no-brainer – because we look at it retrospectively at the mess it created.  It was controversial at time, and the criticism came mostly from Harper, who bought Bush/Blair doctrine.   Harper insisted that was where Canada’s interests lay, where our values should take us.

Economic Relations

When it comes to trade relations it was Mulroney, following Royal Commission Report, that took the great leap towards negotitiations on free trade that eventually became NAFTA.   Mulroney believed that if we could get from out underneath the U.S. trade umbrella and trade harrassment it would be a great deal for Canada.  We would benefit from coming firmly within an America economic framework, and at the same time free ourselves from trade harassment.

By way of contrast, many people believe our long term protection is not in bliateral protection but with many countries that include the Americans.  The history of our free trade is well-known, and we are going to  experience its full effects in the next major while.

And we have not been able to free ourselves from trade harassment.  The U.S. Senate is based on states where less than 20 percent of population control 50 percent of Senate, and is therefore dominated by agriculture and natural resource interests.  The U.S likes to portray itself as supportive of free trade, but it actually relies far less on free trade than any of its trading partners.

This is just another example of where our decisions to make a special deal has actually proved short sighted.

A Foreign Policy that is Our Own Voice

Whether it is on the economic or political side, do we want to have a foreign policy where we find our own voice, or do we see ourselves as essentially being the junior partners in the American enterprise?

In recent days that choice has become very clear and sharp, and a clear example of that is the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen.  He grew up in Afghanistan and was eventually captured and charged in the efforts to kill an American soldier, and has since been incarcerated in Guanatanamo Bay for that last few years.

We have to try to understand what this issue means for Canada.  It’s not just about the politics of do we like what he did or was accused of doing.  There are two major issues:

  1. What do we do with child soldiers?
  2. What do we do with Canadians in these situations?

There have been enormous procedural delays in his trial, with the head of the military tribunal recently being replaced.  There have been two recent Supreme Court cases in the U.S. critical of Guantanamo, and how it is being administered by the American government.

They stated that the law of habeas corpus does apply, and that it is not simply possible to incarcerate people without letting them know what htey have been charged with.  These are fundamental principles of our justice system.  The second case is worth reading simply to review the very basics of habeas corpus and its role in the legal system.

Canada is a signatory to the international treaty aimed at rehabilitating child soldiers.  It’s fundamental to get these people out to rehabilitate them to let them continue on with their lives.

Sri Lanka has an issue with this on the rebel side, where people can be recruited as young as 12 and sent into battle by the age of 14 or 15.  If you capture them, what do you do?  Do you treat them as a soldier, as a child, or as a child soldier?

There are protocols that have to be followed.  The U.S. military tribunal has said we are not interested in this, and it does not pertain to the treatment of Omar Khadr.

The Question for Canada

The question for Canada is that we’ve gone along for a long time to see what kind of justice people like Omar Khadr can get.  We said, let’s hold judgment until we see what kind of treatment he gets.

And frankly, we’ve seen quite enough.

Senator Obama and McCain have both said they would close Guantanamo, and find another method to try people that are there.

We can also look at the issue of members of the Uighur community of Xinjiang in Western China, which has long issues with the extent of which it is being ruled and human rights issues.  How do we respond as a country when dealing with the possibility of courts where we disagree with their approach to a legal system?

In the case of Guantanamo, it puts us in a ridiculous position where the only person thinking Omar Khadr should stay in the U.S. and would get a fair trial in the U.S. is Stephen Harper.

Again, even  McCain says it should be closed. This is an absurd position for Canada to be in.

Differing with America is not Anti-Americanism

Mr. Rae also distinguished the mission in Afghanistan from that in Iraq. The U.N. agreed to the mission. contrary to Iraq.  We believed we were going there to help set up a new government and support them.

The Liberals would like to change the focus to reflect this interest, away from military activities to training the Afghan army and politically helping the government create a more stable arrangement.  The 2011 withdrawal date was what was initially agreed upon by parliament, and when all countries said the mission would come to an end.

These are the principles we should try to apply: that we intervene when we believe it is lawful to do so, and when it is justified by international law.

Canada is not a superpower.  It is not an empire, and we do not have imperial ambitions.  All we want to do is participate in a stable international world order.

That is why we’ve been such strong supporters of the U.N.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted by a Canadian after all.

Our interests as a small country, a relatively small power, are different from that of our neighbours.  It means we will agree and disagree from time to time.  It does not mean we are anti-American, it just means we have different interests.

Get Involved as Law Students

There are many ways you can be involved and engaged in this world.

Your generation has more opportunity to see more, to do more, to be more engaged than any generation in hum history.

Try to make a difference.  Find out what gives you passion, and take those ideals and interests wherever you may go.

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