Human rights grandstanding breeds Malaysian malaise
Vancouver Courier
December 5, 1998

Memo to Jean Chrétien: Don’t piss off your host if you expect his country to buy Canadian. This ain’t rocket science; it’s just good business. After all, a trade mission is supposed to drum up business, not just rack up frequent flyer miles and score a keen looking jacket.

But for Western nations, especially Canada, APEC isn’t just about economics, it’s about morality. When you’re the leader of the world’s designated boy scout, and the conference’s host country (Malaysia) has a less-than-stellar human rights record… well you gotta do what you gotta do.

Soon, you’re meeting the wife of the prime minister’s archrival, and wagging a finger of indignation at local officials over the jailing of political opponents. All of a sudden trade seems to be the last thing on anybody’s mind, at least according to press reports. Canadian business and trade representatives, who hoped to sign a few contracts or sell a few more widgets, could only watch helplessly as Capt. Do-Good of Shawinigan sacrificed economic goodwill on the altar of human rights.

Here’s the problem. Economics and ethics don’t mix. We like to pretend they do, but they don’t. Economics is concerned with making money, and money is utterly amoral. Ethics belongs to the realm of politics and human judgment. When push comes to profit, especially when you’re doing the pushing, money talks louder. No wonder economist Joseph Schumpeter called economics “the dismal science.” If morality were such a big economic consideration, loyal Canadians would be happy to sink RRSP contributions into money-losing Canadian equities, instead of making a modest or healthy profit in the American or European markets.

Funny, but during last year’s APEC conference in Vancouver, Chrétien didn’t have any ethical qualms about turning the RCMP loose on protesters and ingratiating himself to morally dubious heads of state. That conference took place in Canada, a good human rights country, where nary is heard a discouraging human rights word, at least not officially.

In either case, APEC is an embarrassment for Canada. First, human rights concerns, however legitimate they may be, have reduced APEC to a laughing stock. If you don’t like a country’s government, you don’t have to do business with it; however, if you’re convinced that trade with, say, China or Malaysia is vital to the national economy, you keep your powder dry, especially when you go to these countries. Otherwise, why bother being a member?

That doesn’t mean Canada can’t challenge a country’s human rights record, but it must do it discreetly. (Of course, if you’re the United States you have the option of waging a covert war to topple the government to make that country suitable for American investment.)

The second problem is of course, hypocrisy. If Canada is going to moralize to another country, it had better be certain its own house is in order. Well, it isn’t. It turns out that Canada has been reproved on several issues, including homelessness and the economic state of its Native people. But for sheer chutzpah, Chrétien’s criticism of China’s press freedom takes the cake. As the Globe and Mail reported last month:

“I would be less than frank if I did not say directly to you that many Canadians are disturbed when we hear reports from your country of restrictions to the right to free expression of different political views. And particularly when we hear of people being harassed and imprisoned for expressing political views different from [those of] the government.”

How noble. Can we talk about Terry Milewski? Whatever his personal feelings may have been, his reporting of Vancouver’s APEC debacle was rigorously fair and groundbreaking. His employer, CBC (a.k.a.: the government), said Milewski did nothing wrong, yet he was pulled from the story and suspended for three days. Peter Donolo, Chrétien’s unofficial minister of propaganda, took exception to Milewski’s personal correspondence with a key figure in the story. When Milewski had the temerity to defend himself in the Globe he was suspended for another 15 days.

Here in B.C., fanatical Sikhs assassinated publisher Tara Singh Hayer because his political views were too moderate for their liking. In the resent Nisga’a Treaty shouting match, the Green Party was prohibited from speaking and its leader was unceremoniously carted off from the stage. Marg Delahunty gets more respect.

Let’s suppose Chrétien visited a country where a group of religious zealots were able to silence a journalist who spoke uncomfortable truths, and where a media boss interfered with a journalist’s self-expression, in contravention of both journalistic ethics and international “human rights.”

He does almost every day.