The Trudeau government is just past the halfway point in its term, and the public is still waiting for a lot of its promises to manifest. As authors of the annual Canadian Foreign Policy Journal Trudeau Report Card, we evaluated the government’s performance in key foreign policy areas including diplomacy, trade and defence. The Liberal’s development assistance policy received a C-, the lowest grade in any of the nine categories. Given the recently released development budget, which pledged five billion dollars over five years, Canadians should hope that the government has planted sufficient seeds for change to grow into well-implemented projects. But our review of Liberal international development policy shows those seeds have not been properly rooted.
Prime Minister Trudeau loves to boast about how he’s a feminist; an idea whose time may have come for many Canadians. True to their word, the Liberals introduced the much-anticipated Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) in June of 2017. An evidence-based feminist development agenda is a respectable and defensible shift. But if this government is going to assert its overwhelming support for women in development, it needs to support that with the financial backing to make those lofty goals achievable.
The advancement of gender equality is admirable; it is an area where the Nordics excel. But these countries also back up their policies with solid empirically grounded research they fund and do for themselves. They lead, we follow.
Some have suggested the Liberals would prefer to encourage more women to work than let in more immigrants. Nevertheless, Trudeau intends to champion his government’s feminist foreign policy at the G7 where it is likely to find both support from the Germans and push back from the US, specifically on reproductive-health rights, including contraception, sex education and legal abortion.
A significant increase in investment is required to achieve the government’s FIAPs. Canada’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) accounts for 0.26% of its gross national income (GNI). This is much lower than the 0.32% average of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) countries and the 0.7% target established by UN General Assembly resolutions. Although the Trudeau government celebrates its commitments to development, Canada’s ODA levels are at near historic lows. Even after the introduction of its 2018 Budget, the government’s spending levels remain lower than that of the Harper government.
Another serious issue is how the government plans to implement its bold feminist strategy. For example, Canada has committed to no less than 80% of bilateral international development assistance for initiatives with a gender focus, while 15% of bilateral international development investments will specifically target gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls by 2021-22. These are aspirational goals, but the policy remains silent on the detailed policy plans to make these goals meaningful. Current policy doesn’t focus on the critical ‘how’ question.
Similarly, the government has pledged to helping the poorest and most vulnerable people and supporting fragile states. This is a significant shift away from how Canada previously distributed aid, which focused on a list of 25 priority countries. The policy does not address some of the additional risks that fragile states often pose. These include limited capacity, fewer donors and more acute challenges in governance, corruption, and conflict. None of these issues can be tackled independently or cheaply. Based on our fragile states research without a coherent and clear strategy and additional financial resources, the Government’s fragile states policy is unlikely to yield tangible results.
For example, during the election, the Trudeau government staked its reputation on reinvigorating the international liberal order and international institutions. In reality it is that which the government has not committed to that underscores how limited its contributions have been. Consider the International Criminal Court and the Responsibility to Protect agendas, both Liberal Party signature policies, neglected by the Trudeau government and now weakened if not moribund.
On human rights, the Trudeau government promotes itself as a resolute upholder of core principles. To be sure, while the Liberals have taken some measures to improve Canada’s domestic and international human rights standing, such as addressing the illegal detention of Omar Khadr in Guantanamo, they are still accountable for many “missed opportunities.” Notable among these is Canada’s culpability in failing to act responsibly in protracted conflicts where we are more often taking sides than working to stop the violence.
For example, the government has not committed to stopping the sale of armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia, despite the country’s violation of international humanitarian law in a devastating war in Yemen and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Although the government recently conducted an internal probe about the use of Canadian weapons in human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, scepticism still remains, as the results have not been made public. In a recent study we found that Saudi Arabia was historically one of the worst performers on gender equality
Last year, Canada abstained from a UN General Assembly vote denouncing the United States’ decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Canada’s foreign policy appears caught in the American slipstream from which imminent escape appears unlikely. Efforts to punish Venezuela through sanctions are troubling considering that it is being pushed to the brink of collapse by those sanctions. A looming refugee crisis awaits while offers to mediate the conflict remain notably absent. Similarly, Canada has remained relatively silent on the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.
Although these are politically sensitive issues, if the Trudeau government is boasting about its role as a promoter of human rights, it should do more to stand up for those rights. It would appear that for the Liberals, geopolitics takes precedence over human rights. Consider Foreign Minister’s Freeland’s statements made last year to Parliament in which she noted that the world was a more unpredictable and less safe place than just ten years ago. Much of that apparently has to do with the rise of Russia and China. But it is also of our own making, because Canada, like the US, has chosen to take sides in many civil wars ensuring they will be prolonged and deadly.
In order for Canada to be a credible promoter of human rights internationally, these rights must be protected at home too. The Canadian government continues to fail on its obligations to its indigenous populations. There are ongoing issues of inadequate housing, a lack of access to services including those related to mental health, and a lack of clean water and food security.
David Carment is a CGAI Fellow and Editor Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, Carleton University
Natalie LaMarche is a first year JD/MA candidate in the Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution field at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and is pursuing her law degree at the University of Ottawa. She is particularly interested in international humanitarian law, conflict and security, development and human rights.
William O’Connell is a first year MA candidate in the International Economic Policy field at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He previously graduated from Bishop’s University with an Honours BA in International Political Economy. His research focuses on financial regulation and market structure and the political economy of high-income countries.
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