Canada talks a good game when it comes to promoting its feminist foreign policy on the world stage. However, when it really matters, the Trudeau government has demonstrated a disappointing timidity on human rights at the United Nations.
This week marks the opening of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. And high profile members of Canada’s self-proclaimed feminist government, including heavy hitters Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, have taken part in summits, discussion forums, and bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the UN—all the while touting Canada’s human rights credentials and campaigning hard for a coveted temporary seat on the UN Security Council.
Last weekend in Montreal, Freeland hosted the first ever Women Foreign Ministers Meeting. And that’s when she announced the establishment of the position of Women, Peace, and Security Ambassador. And two days later, Freeland took to social media to trumpet the significance of the new diplomatic post. “This is a big step forward for our feminist foreign policy!” she declared on Twitter on Sept. 23, 2018.
“Canada made gender equality a priority at its G7 presidency,” Freeland told the gathering of women foreign ministers. And she reminded them that at the G7 Summit hosted by Canada earlier this year that the club of industrialised nations collectively pledged $3.8 billion in investments in education for women and girls in crisis situations.
Freeland also stated that she, as Canada’s top diplomat and “a committed feminist,” understood that “all of our efforts to advance our diplomatic, trade, security and development priorities must fully take into account the needs of women and girls.”
According to a Global Affairs Canada news release, “Canada’s first ambassador for women, peace and security (WPS)” will, once established, “provide advice on the effective implementation of Canada’s National Action Plan on WPS.”
Freeland’s announcement received some positive reaction in the humanitarian sector. For example, Oxfam Canada, a feminist nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that works on development issues, applauded Freeland’s announcement on Twitter.
To emphasise Canada’s commitment to advancing the rights of women and girls, the Trudeau government used the occasion of the Montreal ministerial gathering to pledge $25 million for programs to combat gender-based violence and to promote women’s participation in peace processes.
Not all of the reactions to Freeland’s announcement about the new position of WPS ambassador and feminist policies was positive. On Twitter, Maxime Bernier, a former leading Conservative Member of Parliament who now leads the People Party of Canada, took aim at the government’s feminist initiative. “More crazy identity politics from Liberals and millions wasted on international chitchat,” Bernier Tweeted on Sept. 23 in response to the announcement. “Are peace and security gender issues now?”
Sexual violence in conflict situations
Bernier asked a provocative question. Based on the facts, it is very clear that the answer is: Yes, peace and security are gender issues—at least in part.
International peace and security, war, civil conflicts, and sexual violence are inextricably linked. There is no doubt that rape, sexual assault and sexual torture, all of which tends to disproportionately affect women and girls, are terrifying features of conflict situations.
Earlier this year, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres submitted his annual report on conflict-related sexual violence to the Security Council. The report, which covers the period from Jan. to Dec. 2017, found that “sexual violence continued to serve as a driver of forced displacement and a factor inhibiting the return of uprooted communities to their places of origin.”
According to Guterres, “sexual violence was also used by belligerent parties to attack and alter the ethnic or religious identity of persecuted groups.” And he writes that sexual violence in conflict situations is “an integral component of strategies to secure the control of land and resources,” devastating the “the physical and economic security of displaced and rural women and women belonging to minority groups.”
Guterres defines conflict-related sexual violence as “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.”
The perpetrators of conflict-related violence can be affiliated with a State actor or a non-state State armed group, including terrorist groups. And he explains that the victim tends to be “an actual or perceived member of a political, ethnic or religious minority group or targeted on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Wars and women’s bodies
In his report, the Secretary General asserts that wars are “being fought on and over the bodies of women, to control their production and reproduction by force.” Sexual violence in conflict zones is often perpetrated in public or witnessed by family members “to terrorize communities and fracture families through the violation of taboos, signifying that nothing is sacred and no one is safe.”
The Guterres report links the rise of conflict and violent extremism with the proliferation of weapons, the displacement of large numbers of people, the collapse of the rule of law, all of which leads to sexual violence perpetrated by combatants.
Those links were evident in 2017. The report notes the surge of sexual violence “as insecurity spread to new regions of the Central African Republic, as violence surged in Ituri, the three Kasai provinces, North and South Kivu and Tanganyika in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as conflict engulfed South Sudan, as “ethnic cleansing” under the guise of clearance operations unfolded in northern Rakhine, Myanmar, and in besieged areas of the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen.”
Who are the victims of sexual violence in conflict situations? “The preponderance of victims were politically and economically marginalized women and girls, living beyond the reach and protection of the institutions that ensure the rule of law,” the Secretary General writes. “They are concentrated in remote, rural areas, which have the least access to quality services, and in refugee and displacement settings.”
As in past years, sexual violence was used a weapon of war, terrorism, torture, and repression in 2017. And the goals in many cases were to displaced targeted religious or ethnic communities and disrupt social cohesion. That pattern was in evidence in a number of conflicts, including Central African Republic, Iraq, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Myanmar.
“In those cases, to varying degrees, the strategic nature of sexual violence was evident in the selective targeting of victims from specific ethnic, religious or political groups, mirroring the fault lines of the wider conflict or crisis and, in some cases, in the explicit enactment of the nationalist or extremist ideologies espoused by the perpetrators,” reads the Secretary General’s bracing report.
Human Rights Commission
According to a 2017 report produced by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), sexual violence has been perpetrated by combatants in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.
“Many cases of conflict-related sexual violence documented by OHCHR in Ukraine were associated with other human rights violations and abuses, such as unlawful killings, abduction or incommunicado detention or looting of their property, which complicates documentation and investigation,” states the report, which is entitled Conflict-related Sexual Violence in Ukraine 14 March 2014 to 31 January 2017.
The report states that OHCHR has been keeping a close eye on the incidence of conflict-related sexual violence since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine in April 2014. The UN rights body found that allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by all parties to the conflict were common.
“Cases of sexual violence are usually under-reported, including because of a general unease about this issues, as well as the stigma and trauma associated with it,” the OHCHR report reveals. The rights body was not able to verify all the allegations, because it was not permitted access to the rebel-controlled Autonomous Republic of the Crimea.
The OHCHR concluded that sexual violence has not been used for strategic or tactical purposes by either Government forces or armed groups in the eastern regions of Ukraine, or by the Russian Federation in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
Nevertheless, the OHCHR report concludes that “regardless of its scale, sexual violence particularly in the context of a conflict, is a gross violation of physical integrity, and it may, under certain conditions, amount to torture or to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” And the cases of sexual violence linked to the conflict “could amount to war crimes,” the report adds.
“The majority of cases of conflict-related sexual violence document by OHCHR in Ukraine occurred in the context of the deprivation of liberty by Government forces or armed groups,” the report continues. “In these cases, both men and women were subjected to sexual violence.”
In addition, the OHCHR uncovered cases of “sexual abuse against civilians, mainly women, at the entry-exit checkpoints along the transport corridors across the contact line run by the Government forces, as well as the checkpoints run by armed groups.” Moreover, the report alleges that “the presence of Ukrainian armed forces and armed groups in populated areas also increases the risk of sexual violence against civilians.”
The OHCHR report concludes that “the prevailing impunity for human rights violations and abuses related to the conflict, unavailable or insufficient complaint and reporting mechanisms still exacerbate the risk of sexual violence.”
Chinese internment camps
This week on the sidelines of the opening session of the General Assembly, Freeland held a bilateral meeting with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
According to a Sept. 25th post on Freeland’s Twitter account, she and the Chinese foreign minister discussed “the state of the rules-based international order, multilateralism, the WTO [World Trade Organization], and how to strengthen [the] Canada-China bilateral relationship.” However, she made no mention of China’s massive crackdown on and internment of Uighur Muslims in China.
Last month, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reported that over a million Uighurs and other Muslims are being interned in “political camps for indoctrination” in western Xingiang autonomous region.
The mass internment and political re-education of Chinese Muslims echoes the horrors committed by the Communists during the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao. According to published reports, the internees live in very harsh conditions with little to eat and endure violence at the hands of guards. And no one ever leaves these camps, according to a story published in The Globe and Mail in August.
In addition to her meeting with Yi, Freeland, along with Prime Minister Trudeau, took part in an international policy discussion sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. The topics included trade and the importance of defending democracy, diversity, and human rights.
During the question and answer session, a representative of Human Rights Watch, an NGO that advocates for human rights and the persecuted, confronted Trudeau and Freeland with the horrific truth about the internment of Uighurs in China. She asked if the Trudeau government would protect Uighurs from being deported to China. And she also wanted to know if Canada would lead an international coalition to protest China’s internment of the persecuted Muslim minority.
In response, the Prime Minister gave a weak, self-congratulatory answer, boasting about how Canada always raises human rights issues in bilateral meetings. But Trudeau failed to specifically condemn Beijing’s internment of Uighurs and other Muslims minorities. He would only say that Canada had raised the issue with the Chinese.
Similarly, Freeland’s answer was disappointingly timid. The foreign affairs ministers acknowledged that she had raised the Uighur issue during her meeting with the Yi. Then she went on to tell the Human Rights Watch representative that Canada is “not perfect” when it comes to human rights, citing Indigenous issues. “We are humble about our inadequacy, and that is really important,” she said contritely.
“Starting from that place, we do think it’s important to speak up about human rights around the world,” she added.
Since becoming Canada’s foreign minister, Freeland has repeatedly declared: “Women’s rights are human rights,” echoing the words delivered by Hillary Clinton in her historic 1995 speech to the UN’s women’s conference in Beijing. In that speech, Clinton fearlessly forced women’s rights to the top of the international agenda. And Clinton, then First Lady, did not shy away from openly challenging the Communist regime’s horrible record on women’s rights.
Not surprisingly, Chinese censors blacked out the televised broadcast of her speech, preventing ordinary Chinese from hearing her words. But inside the conference hall, Clinton’s speech was met with wild applause by delegates, especially when she thundered: “Women’s rights are human rights!”
Freeland is no Hillary Clinton. By treating the Chinese with kid gloves on the Uighur issue, Freeland played into the hands of the brutal Communist regime that persecutes and denies its citizens basic human rights. Beijing does not want to be publicly embarrassed or challenged on human rights. The Communist regime would rather deal with such issues behind closed doors, thereby allowing it to continue to perpetrate gross human rights abuses on a scale not seen since the days of Mao or the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin.
Freeland should study the findings of the OHCHR regarding sexual violence inflicted upon women and men who have lost their liberty in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Once detained, victims are powerless and are often subjected to sexual assault, which is often tantamount to torture. If that is the case in Ukraine, it is almost certain the people incarcerated in Chinese internment camps suffer similar sexual violence.
If the supposedly feminist Trudeau government’s commitments to advancing the interests of women and girls as well as combating sexual violence are to be taken seriously, Canada must get tough with China on human rights. And this means taking an unyielding public stand on human rights in concert with other members of the community of nations.
Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian journalist who specialises in international relations, human rights, Canadian foreign policy, international religious freedom, and American foreign policy. Follow Geoffrey on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston