What the new Liberal gov could mean for human rights

Expect to see a ‘very significant shift’ forward, expert says

Foreign Affairs -- Ottawa
Flags hang in the lobby at Foreign Affairs in Ottawa.

Justin Trudeau’s appointment of 15 women to federal cabinet may have been historic enough to make international headlines this week, but the buck doesn’t stop with the high chamber.

Trudeau, his new MPs, and Canada’s foreign ambassadors, are going to have to work collectively if they want to restore the peacekeeping title this country once displayed on the international stage.

After a decade of Harper, there have been significant shifts in how Canada does human rights work at home and abroad.

In 2013, when I was working on a human rights degree at the University of Winnipeg, I had the chance to travel to New York on a study tour with stops at several high-profile NGO’s, embassies, and the UN.

It seemed like everywhere we went, my classmates and I were reminded of just how minuscule Canada’s humanitarian role overseas had become.

There was an overwhelming sense of embarrassment felt as we were told repeatedly that Canada plays no role in issues it used to champion.

The United Nations in New York.

Under the Harper government, we saw the Canadian International Development Agency shut down, funding for ‘advocacy’ work go out the window, and some of the country’s most respected diplomats silenced.

Then, there was the country’s refusal to sign UN pacts like the Arms Trade Treaty, which bans the transferring of illegal weapons likely to be used in crimes against humanity.

Marilou McPhedran, an international human rights expert, said Canada has had ‘a very modest’ contribution to peacekeeping missions under Harper.

With the Grits’ diverse new cabinet, she’s expecting to see an unprecedented emphasis placed on peacekeeping as well as a push for an integrated gender alliance that goes beyond cabinet.

She points to people like Patty Hajdu, Canada’s new Status of Women Minister, who has come from the front lines of ‘rights’ work in Thunder Bay, Ont.

And then there’s Canada’s first indigenous Justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

“We have a much more closely aligned cabinet on values, and it really isn’t defined along gender lines (or) regional lines either,” McPhedran said.

Gone are the days of women’s rights being treated as a standalone issue, McPhedran thinks.

“We’re going to start to see appointments, where there’s a much stronger alliance that has a ‘rights’ base,” she said.

“This will be a very significant shift.”

And Trudeau may have started that shift this week when he wrote to diplomats telling them Wednesday marked a “new era” for Canadian diplomacy.

Arms trade must be addressed

But the rookie prime minister, and his cabinet will have to tackle issues beyond gender, like Canada’s billion dollar arms trade, which peaked to record heights under the Harper government.

McPhedran said if Canada wants to wear the title of a peacekeeping country, this will be the new government’s biggest challenge.

And she has a point. How can Canada justify selling weapons to countries with gruesome human rights records like Saudi Arabia and Iraq?

“When you make an investment as a country in peace, you do it in a human rights framework,” McPhedran said.

“If we continue to sell arms that are being used to perpetuate atrocities within a whole range of different countries, then we as a country have to be held accountable for that.”

Like Trudeau said it’s 2015, so balancing gender in the House wasn’t hard.

What will be is the arms trade, and reversing this country’s shift from militarism to peacekeeping. If the new government can tackle that, it’ll have a ripple effect on human rights, and change how Canada is viewed internationally.

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