The Chinese Puzzle Box
Posted Thu, Jan 14, 2010

Round one to the Chinese Government.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent visit to China was an eye opener – both for observers and, one can only hope, for our government. Having previously lived and worked in China, I tend to follow developments there closely. Given that the Middle Kingdom is arguably already the second most important country in the world, and is currently Canada’s second largest trading partner, it is good that our government has now decided to do the same.

Most don’t realize it, but China currently boasts the world’s third largest economy, and is a country whose economic development over the past thirty years has been unprecedented. One of the biggest mistakes the West – led by the United States – has made over the last decade has been to underestimate, and largely ignore China. In recent years, Canada’s conduct has been a prime example of this. Our bizarre one country isolation of China in the last few years has made no sense, particularly since Canada was once well positioned to benefit from China’s rise.

Historically, Canada has had an excellent reputation there. Every Chinese schoolchild is taught who Bethune was – which is probably more than can be said for Canadian kids. Trudeau’s early outreach to the then isolated communist China, during the early days of their rapprochement with the outside world, left a lasting sense of goodwill. Had the proper strategy been adopted over the past twenty years, China’s rise could well have proven an enormous boon to Canada’s economic fortunes.

Too often, however, leaders from Western countries made the mistake of reflexively seeing the past when they looked at China, rather than the reality, or much less the future of what that country was to become. Only now have most developed countries woken up to the reality of modern China, and as the Prime Minister could probably attest, it has been a rude awakening indeed.

During his visit, Prime Minister Harper was repeatedly chided by senior Chinese officials: both Premier Wen Jiabao, and President Hu Jintao personally pointed out how long it had taken Canada’s “new” Prime Minister to officially visit China. These concerns were more pointedly echoed by the state controlled Chinese media, which expressed the view that Harper’s “overdue visit” might lead to a “thaw” in relations, and had characterized the Prime Minister as previously turning “a cold shoulder to China.” Such apparently mild criticism might not sound like much, but in the Chinese context, direct public criticism by the top Chinese leaders, particularly in the presence of another country’s leader, is almost unheard of. Make no mistake, this very public and repeated rebuke was intended to send a message to our government – and a pretty blunt one at that, if you understand how the Chinese government operates.

By raising this concern in a public forum, the Chinese Premier subtly put the Prime Minister on the spot, pressuring him to publicly concede that “more regular visits would make sense.” The subtext was clear: the Chinese leadership wanted to force the Prime Minster to admit that his lack of an earlier visit to China, and by extension the government’s initial policy of reticence to China, was wrong, and to apologize for it. In other words, they recognized the muted criticism of their country implicit in Canada’s standoffishness, and didn’t appreciate it.

The Chinese media’s characterization of the attitude towards the Prime Minister’s visit was telling; it was described as being “late, but welcome.” Translation: we’re now on probation, and while what they viewed as our recent slights have not been forgotten, closer ties are possible as long as we act appropriately in the future. Having made this point and rapped Canada’s knuckles by extracting an apology of sorts from the Prime Minister, in typical Chinese government fashion the Prime Minister’s hosts then pivoted toward the carrot. Granting Canada the long sought-after status of a “preferred tourist destination,” and agreeing to open a Chinese consulate in Montreal demonstrated the benefits of remaining in the communist government’s good graces. Game, set, and match to the Prime Minister’s Chinese hosts.

This is not to say that the Canadian government’s concerns about China, which underlay the recent “policy” of not pursuing close relations, were unfounded. Few would argue that China’s human rights record and ongoing practices should be ignored or papered over by any responsible member of the international community, and our government’s treatment of China has surely been shaped by these concerns (along with the remnants of an outmoded cold war mentality).

Indeed, the recent chill in relations can be traced back to Ottawa’s blunt criticism of China’s jailing a Canadian citizen belonging to China’s Uighur minority in 2006. Later that year, the Prime Minister directly addressed the notion of building closer trading ties with China by famously saying “I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that. But I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values.” Equally blunt was the Prime Minister’s early public support of the Dali Lama (who, in the official Chinese media, is absurdly depicted as something akin to a James Bond villain: he is officially regarded as a “splittist” terrorist leader, tirelessly working with his villainous minions to break up the country).

The fact is, Ottawa’s continued criticism of China’s human rights record over the past few years has been principled, but directionless and amateurish. The issue is not whether we merely recognize these shortcomings, but rather to what end our criticism is to serve. Here we could learn something from the Chinese government, which internationally speaks softly, but carries a big stick. Each move they make is calculated to achieve some end; empty bluster is our style, not theirs.

If Canada actually wants to impact the human rights situation in China, merely giving the cold shoulder to a self-sufficient country more powerful than we are is not likely to accomplish much. As the United States discovered in recent years, the notion that ignoring countries we don’t like will prove sufficient punishment to bring them to heel is more than a little simplistic, if not painfully egocentric. This is particularly so when those countries don’t really need us in the first place.

In some cases, international isolation can be effective, but in order to be so, it generally requires widespread cooperation from like-minded countries, among other things. What essentially boils down to a solo effort to do so, such as that Canada has imposed on China in recent years, could only be laughably ineffective. Indeed, even the notion of joint or widespread international isolation of China has now become unthinkable, given the degree to which the Middle Kingdom is now integrated into the world economy.

From an economic point of view, Canada needs China more than China needs us, and their government knows it. They also know where the balance of power lies in the relations between the two countries; subtly forcing the Prime Minister to verbally repudiate his previous policy was intended to send more than one message.

So how is Canada to now manage its newly reset relations with China? This is an important question, and one with no easy answer. The message China has sent to Canada is the same other democratic countries have heard: economic dialogue and trade is welcome, but all but the mildest criticism of their internal affairs (as they deem human rights considerations to be) will not be tolerated and will invite reprisals. The joint statement released by Canada and China during the visit was typical, with no quarter or a hint of concession given with respect to the human rights issue: it said only that the two countries agreed they have “distinct views” in this area. This was akin to, and about as useful as, coming to agree that both countries reside on the planet Earth – an obvious statement of fact which promises no further introspection, much less action. To his credit, the Prime Minister did show that Canada would not be cowed into avoiding mention of human rights altogether. In his press conference, he again directly mentioned Tibet – something sure to irritate his hosts, and which may have been intended to send a message of his own.

At the end of the day, however, Canada – as are other democratic countries – is in a bind, when it comes to dealing with China. To put it starkly: Do we sweep human rights concerns under the carpet in the name of trade? Or do we suffer economically in defense of the values the Prime Minister spoke of? That’s the puzzle box we have to solve.

There’s no easy answer to this quandary, but if this recent visit to China has shown us anything, it’s that from now on we’d better have a plan. Otherwise this will only be the first in a long line of rounds that won’t be going Canada’s way.

Canadian and Travelling Abroad? You’re on Your Own
Posted Mon, Dec 7, 2009

As one might imagine, the opportunity to travel internationally is one of the perks of working in the field of international law, human rights, and development. As I think back over my current journey, which has included project work in Zambia, South Africa, and Abu Dhabi over the span of the last month, as well as side trips to London and Zurich, I’ve been reminded of two things.  First, like any Canadian who now ventures beyond our borders, I’m going to have to continue to make damn sure that my glasses and lips look just like those found in my passport picture, lest I end up “Suaad Mohamud-ed” (the glasses won’t be a problem, but so much for that collagen injection I’ve been pining for).  Second, and more seriously, once again it has been driven home that my Canadian passport is the most valuable thing I own.

In every place I have been recently, there has been one constant: showing that passport and revealing my citizenship has resulted in the best of treatment.  While I’ve seen fellow foreign airline passengers being stopped and questioned extensively at borders, officials generally take one brief look at that blue booklet and immediately wave me through. When it comes to booking into international hotels, once the check-in staff is presented with evidence of Canadian citizenship, it’s not unusual to see a subtle, and positive change in their manner.  This is particularly so in countries where I hear the comment that “we didn’t know there were black people in Canada” (hard to believe, I know, but trust me, it happens more often than you’d think).  Average citizens on the street become noticeably less wary and more helpful once they find out I am from Canada. There are plenty of other examples, but the point is, as those who travel frequently know, showing a Canadian passport tends to afford one goodwill and often, even special treatment abroad.  This is remarkable, and indicative of the respect that Canadians enjoy in other parts of the world.

It would be nice if our own government started to show that it valued Canadian citizenship as highly.

In case after recent case, the government has flatly refused to help Canadians overseas who have found themselves in distress.  Suaad Mohamud was stranded in Kenya for months after Canadian officials inexplicably and erroneously branded her an imposter. Despite that she suffered an ordeal which included being thrown into a Kenyan prison, our government refused to reopen the case or take any steps whatsoever to verify Ms. Mohamud’s identity, until her lawyer forced them to.  As we all now know, she was then proved to be exactly who she claimed. The same thing happened to Abdihakim Mohamed, an autistic Canadian youth who was also stuck in Kenya – this time for over three years – again because the government first contended he was not who he claimed to be, and then refused to take the time to look into the matter to verify this supposition.  Appallingly, he’s still there, though there is hope he will finally be repatriated later this month.  Mr. Abousfian Abdelrazik, who was apparently erroneously placed on a UN terrorist watchlist, was stranded in Sudan after being refused a passport and travel documents by the Canadian government, even after no evidence was found to support the accusations against him.  Oddly, given that he was refused the documents on national security grounds, officials at the Canadian Embassy in Sudan then allowed him to take refuge under their roof, and live in the Embassy’s gym for over a year.  Apparently, not everyone was convinced that Mr. Abdelrazik posed a much of a threat.

Another example is the case of Ms. Nathalie Morin, a Canadian citizen living in Saudi Arabia who alleges that, for the past two years, she and her child have been prevented from leaving and returning to Canada by her Saudi husband.  Saudi law gives husbands the authority to restrict the travel of their spouses (which is hardly a surprise given that it also forbids women from driving, among other restrictions).  This law has recently been changed to permit foreign-born wives to leave without their husband’s permission, but as the amendment is not retroactive, unfortunately it does not apply to Ms. Morin.  Again, our government has decided not to intervene, with the Foreign Affairs minister recently stating that the matter was a private one, to be resolved by Saudi officials.

In those cases noted above which were actually resolved, it was only after the families of the stranded individuals hired lawyers to sue the government that there was any movement on their matters. Suaad Mohamud’s counsel forced the government to conduct a DNA test, which conclusively proved her identity and finally shamed the government into repatriating her.  Thanks to pressure from his lawyer, Abdihakim Mohamed was similarly promised travel documents in the wake of the Suaad Mohamud fiasco.  Maybe he’ll even get them.  In the case of Abousfian Abdelrazik, the matter proceeded all the way to trial, and it was only after a scathing decision by the federal court, which ordered the government to repatriate Mr. Abdelrazik, that he was finally returned home.

It seems that now it is only when ordered by a court that our government will bother to extend itself to protect Canadian citizens in jeopardy overseas.  In the face of this new reality, two thoughts come to mind.  First, one can only pity the poor soul who cannot afford a lawyer to force the government to act.  If Suaad Mohamud’s husband had not been able to scrape together the money to retain counsel, she would undoubtedly still be wandering the streets of Nairobi, thousands of miles from her home and teenaged son.  This is particularly disturbing, given that in the cases noted, the stranded Canadians all appear to have been guilty of nothing other than simply being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  There is no evidence of malfeasance against any of them, and in the case of Suaad Mohamud, it is clear that she ended up blacklisted solely due to the errors, if not outright incompetence, of Canadian officials abroad.  Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to matter when officials in Canada were later asked to investigate these matters.

Secondly, the reality now seems to be that if you’re a Canadian citizen traveling abroad, you’re on your own.  The unspoken attitude seems to be that if you run into difficulties beyond our borders, well, you shouldn’t be out there anyway.

Apparently, it’s now amateur hour on the international stage. This bizarre mentality is not shared by anyone who understands how global relations function in the 21st Century; it is closer to that which would have been found 30 years ago. Suffice it to say, this is not the foreign policy of a confident nation sure of its place in the new globalized world; rather it would seem to reflect the impoverished view of one which sees the world as an ominous and threatening place, that it would prefer its citizens to fear and stay away from.

If Canada is to thrive and become a leader on the evolving international stage, it is inexplicable why policies would be adopted which can only make our citizens wary of traveling to foreign countries and emerging markets.  Our competitiveness depends on citizens, as well as government, coming to understand all corners of the globe, and not being afraid to cultivate the opportunities that lie there.  At the end of the day, the question is whether we believe our people should be free to travel, trade, and lead in the new global environment, or whether, in truth, we’re going to encourage such contributions only grudgingly, and would prefer that our people cower behind our own borders.  It goes without saying that the government cannot perfectly protect every Canadian abroad, but why would it not at least want to try?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but until it is answered, here’s a word to the wise: keep those old glasses and forget the collagen injections.

The View from Afar
Posted Sun, Oct 25, 2009

If it’s Monday, I must be in Abu Dhabi.

This is hardly going to be a startling admission, but one of the perks of working in international law and development is the travel.  In today’s globalized economic environment, the opportunity to not only visit, but also to truly get a feel for other countries and cultures is both a privilege and a necessity.  Be it in business or  politics, the brightest future belongs to those who understand the wider world, and on the national level, to those countries which best harness the skills of citizens who do.  Understanding the customs, culture and norms which shape the thinking of people from other parts of the world is quickly becoming a necessity for any nation which expects to compete on the global stage.  On a personal level, this knowledge and the experience which generates it are both useful, and endlessly fascinating.

That being said, one can have a little too much of a good thing.  On my current trip, I have been engaged in project work in Livingstone , Zambia (yes, the city is named after whom you might have presumed), Pretoria, South Africa, and now, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.  Throw in brief stops in Botswana, Johannesburg, Dubai and London, and you can understand what I mean.   During one stretch last week, I flew from Johannesburg, South Africa to Lusaka, Zambia one day; from Lusaka to London, England the next; and from London to Abu Dhabi the day after that.  Suffice it to say that I can tell you which airlines have the best peanuts and most comfortable seats.

Still, hours (or days) in transit are a small price to pay for the opportunity to get to know the reality of far away places we may only hear about on the news.  How else would one find out that South Africans are widely considered the “Americans of Africa”, by the rest of the continent (and what that actually means)?  Or that Ethiopia has a population of around 80 million people, well over twice that of Canada?  Or that in the UAE, which possesses the world’s third largest reserves of oil, this resource contributes only slightly over a quarter of the national GDP (in Dubai, oil exports only account for around 6%)?

Working in other countries makes it perfectly, and occasionally painfully, evident that there is a wide world beyond our borders about which we do not know enough.   With that in mind, I was particularly pleased that this trip would take me to the UAE.  While I have done extensive project work and/or travelling throughout the so called developing world, and particularly in Africa and Asia, I have had relatively little exposure to the Middle East.  Indeed, with the exception of Israel, I have spent almost no time in this part of the world.  Coming here then, represents a unique and long overdue opportunity to experience the reality of region which has loomed so large in world events over the last decade.

What will I find?  That, I’m not certain of, but watch this space and I’ll keep you posted.

Blaming the Foreign Bogeyman in Iran
Posted Thu, Jul 16, 2009

After the striking events of the past few weeks, a tense and uneasy peace and has now fallen over the streets of Tehran.   For the moment, the ruthless government crackdown imposed in response to the aftermath of the disputed Presidential election has largely succeeded in suppressing public protest of the outcome of the election.  To the surprise of no one, in justifying the often brutal repression of its own citizenry, the Iranian regime fell back on a standard stratagem, blaming the bogeyman of “outside agitators” and shadowy “foreign powers” as being responsible for the  election backlash in the first place.  For a change however, the scapegoating isn’t going over well.

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Darren Thorne
Darren Thorne, B.A., LL.B., LL.M. Educated at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Master of Laws Degree) and Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School (Bachelor of Laws), Darren Thorne is an international lawyer specializing in international law, development and human rights. Based in Europe in recent years, Mr. Thorne has an extensive history of onsite international development work and within the last two years has been involved in project work in Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Africa, Mongolia and Italy, among other places.