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Canada's push for Southeast Asia ties raises human-rights questions

OTTAWA — Canada's plan to deepen ties with Southeast Asian countries raises questions about how it will address human-rights concerns in the region, critics say.
Canadians United Against Hate founder Fareed Khan speaks as he's joined by representatives of the University of Ottawa Human Rights Centre, the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, and human rights advocacy group Justice for All Canada as they hold a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, to mark International Human Rights Day, and to call attention to what they say is Canada’s repeated failures to adequately defend human rights at home and abroad. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Canada's plan to deepen ties with Southeast Asian countries raises questions about how it will address human-rights concerns in the region, critics say.

Last month, Ottawa unveiled its Indo-Pacific strategy, which calls for a greater presence in the region through diplomatic, military and trade ties. The strategy seeks to counteract China for undermining human rights as well as global trade rules.

Ottawa is negotiating trade deals with Indonesia, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and plans to undertake military training and interoperability with countries such as Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. 

But Canada's silence on human rights issues in countries it plans to partner with has advocates concerned.

"Human rights are human rights, and you can't be a hypocrite when it comes to dealing with governments who are human-rights abusers," said Fareed Khan, the founder of Canadians United Against Hate.

"We can't be silent. We tried that with China ... and look where we are today."

This past week, Indonesia's parliament unanimously voted to make sex outside of marriage punishable by a year in jail, and to outlaw insulting the president and state institutions.

When asked about that legislation on Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly spoke generally about human rights.

She said Ottawa is trying to find friends in the region and nudge them toward Canadian values.

"Human rights is always part of our foreign policy, has always been and will continue to be. So we'll always raise these issues," she said.

"The tectonic plates of the world’s power structure are moving, and so in that context, we also need to make sure that we work with a broad coalition of states to defend the very principles of the UN Charter."

The 1945 document she referenced highlights human rights and peacefully settling disputes.

The NDP argues those principles are being undermined by the federal Liberal government's emphasis on trade negotiations since it took office in 2015.

"We've seen this constant move toward prioritizing trade over human rights, over development, over diplomatic relationships," NDP foreign-affairs critic Heather McPherson told reporters Thursday.

"Canada has the power to be an honest broker, a middle power and a convener. We must use that influence to make the world a safer, better place for all people."

Lately, the New Democrats have criticized Ottawa's deepening ties with India, amid growing concerns about its treatment of minorities. 

In March, Human Rights Watch called out Narendra Modi's government for a "serious regression in human rights and constitutional protections."

When asked earlier this month about those concerns, Trade Minister Mary Ng noted that Canada has been including parameters around human rights in the trade deals it's been signing and negotiating, such as prohibiting the products of forced labour.

"All of our work in trade is underscored by the values that are important to Canadians," she said on Dec. 2.

"India, as the world’s largest democracy shares the values of a rules-based system. And so our work and our relationship with India is one that is underpinned by those shared values."

Mark Warner, an international trade expert, said it's unclear if Canada's push for human-rights pledges in trade deals means that countries will actually live up to them.

"In order to pivot away from China, we're doing a lot of deals with other autocratic states," Warner said.

"Everybody is in a mess with this autocracy business."

The Indo-Pacific strategy also calls for "targeted initiatives" for Canadian and foreign groups "to pursue human-rights and gender-equality projects" in the region, and support multilateral institutions that advance those values.

The plan has a specific focus on peacebuilding in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, including accountability for human-rights abuses against the Rohingya and among Sri Lanka's ethnic groups.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has documented the Philippine military's compliance in a bloody drug war led by former president Rodrigo Duterte, as well as in social-media campaigns that included threats against his opponents.

The Philippines is among the countries with which Canada plans to pursue military interoperability.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2022.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press