Human Rights in Foreign Policy

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| Copyright Dominique Clément / Clément Consulting


The rights revolution in foreign policy was abetted by the actions of SMOs headquartered in Canada and operating abroad. MATCH International was established following the 1975 United Nations for Women conference in Mexico City. This was the first ever conference of its kind: run for women and by women in partnership with women in poor countries. The federal government provided funding for SMOs such as MATCH International to promote human rights and humanitarian work abroad. Churches also became integral to Canada’s new focus on human rights and humanitarianism around the world. In 1968 the federal government embarked on a strategy to use churches as conduits for humanitarian aid, beginning with a $100,000 grant to the United Church to manufacture water-drilling rigs in India. Within a few years the Canadian International Development Agency was operating a permanent SMO division. These developments were part of a shift among Canadian churches away from missionary work in favour of humanitarian efforts. And the churches, in turn, sought to influence policy and generate public support for human rights–based foreign policy. Christian churches in Canada formed a multitude of SMOs to promote human rights abroad: the Inter-Church Committee for Human Rights in Latin America, the Canada–Asia Working Group, the Inter-Church Coalition for Africa, the Inter-Church Committee on Refugees, the Consultative Committee on Human Rights, and the Task Force on Corporate Responsibility. One project, Ten Days for World Development, launched in 1978, was especially successful in generating support for foreign policy based on human rights and humanitarianism. As a result of these developments, Canada became one of a small group of “like-minded countries” (including Norway and the Netherlands) that linked development aid to human rights.

There were subtle but nonetheless notable examples of how human rights were beginning to inform foreign policy. In 1976, the Canadian government inserted a section on refugees into its immigration law; in 1978, it took unilateral action to restrict Canadian companies from operating in South Africa and withdrew aid from the Amin regime in Uganda; in 1977, it imposed economic restrictions (including bans on food exports and a curtailing of credits) on Poland and the Soviet Union; in 1981, it suspended aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Sri Lanka. In the midst of these debates, the Progressive Conservative Party, then in opposition, committed itself to a more rights-based foreign policy. When that party came to power in 1979, it honoured this commitment by, among other things, withholding aid from Vietnam for gross human rights violations. In the course of the 1980s, Canada would impose sanctions on twenty-two countries.

To be sure, human rights concerns never trumped economic and geopolitical interests. Major policy speeches on human rights in foreign policy were notably lacking in substance and often reflected a reluctance to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, no matter how repressive. The federal government vigorously resisted domestic pressure to intervene in the internal affairs of even the most repressive regimes, including when it came to human rights in Latin America. It quickly reintroduced foreign aid for both Guatemala and El Salvador.  In addition to widespread human rights abuses in the Soviet Union, atrocities were committed under Idi Amin in Uganda (1971–79), Macias Nguema in Equatorial Guinea (1969–79), and the socialists in Ethiopia after 1974. There was also the Cambodian genocide (1975–79), the Hutu massacres in Burundi (1972), the Indonesian army’s mass killings in East Timor (1975), and famine in China under Mao (1949–76). Canada also failed to impose sanctions against Chile. Even so, Canada’s initial attempts to link human rights to foreign aid constituted an astonishing change for a country that, not so long ago, had no human rights movement, no human rights law, and little concern for human rights abuses abroad, and that had opposed the UDHR. In a complete reversal of its policy of the 1950s, Canada chaired a committee of the Commonwealth in 1984 to impose further sanctions on South Africa.

Human rights, which had not been a serious consideration in foreign policy until the 1970s, gained much greater prominence in Canada’s external relations. International human rights politics led many states during this period to engage in diplomatic pressure, sanctions, and military action (humanitarian intervention as well as peacekeeping) against states responsible for widespread human rights violations. However, as in all aspects of the rights revolution, this was a contentious process. Policy-makers struggled with how to promote human rights abroad while, at the same time, respecting the principles of state sovereignty and non-interference.

Jimmy Carter, as President of the United States from 1976 to 1980, had made human rights a central tenet of American foreign policy. Although if it is difficult to identify any lasting legacy, there is no question that he played an important role in raising the profile of human rights in international politics. Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland were among the first countries to link human rights to humanitarian aid. Each of these countries declared human rights to be an integral component of its foreign policy and supported human rights campaigns abroad. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of democratic movements in Asia, Latin America, and Africa created additional opportunities to incorporate human rights into foreign policy. There was less pressure on Western states to support brutal dictatorships like Argentina out of fear that they would fall under the influence of the Soviet Union. The United States, Britain, France, and Germany increased their aid and rhetorical support to states committed to promoting democracy and human rights. The World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development integrated good governance into their criteria for providing loans to poor nations. Some nations, however, resisted. Many African and Asian countries at first appealed to human rights to denounce colonialism and then asserted a right to development when Western nations criticized their domestic policies. Some countries insisted that it was necessary to limit certain freedoms to ensure economic development; others simply rejected human rights as a Western invention designed to cloak continued Western hegemony.


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  • Clément, Dominique. “page title or document title.” Canada’s Human Rights History. (date accessed).