Staking out the ‘human-security’ turf

Since 1993, the business of Canada’s federal government has been business. The Chretien government has downsized, deregulated and off-loaded at a rate that makes Brian Mulroney look like a socialist. However, a Liberal government also needs an air of virtue. If Paul Martin reassures business, Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy and his ”human security” agenda exist to tell Canadians that Liberalism has more to its agenda than making the rich a little richer.

In company with colleagues from Norway, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Jordan and a handful of partners in a ”Human Security Network,” our diplomats labour to ban anti-personnel mines, discourage the use of child soldiers by Third World guerrillas and promote an international criminal court. With Bill Clinton and Britain’s Tony Blair, Axworthy argues that human-security issues transcend national boundaries. Last year at the United Nations, the ultimate club of sovereign states, Lloyd Axworthy appealed last year for members to rethink what ”We the peoples” had meant in the preamble to the UN’s Declaration on Human Rights: ”If we the peoples were to have the chance to rethink this preamble, we might say that we are determined to save existing generations from the grave new risks to their personal and family security.”

What this means was illustrated when international war-crimes prosecutor Louise Arbour indicted Serb president Slobodan Milosevic shortly before she joined Canada’s Supreme Court. In March and April of 1999, Canadian fighter bombers helped destroy enough Serb targets to force Milosevic to withdraw from the Serb province of Kosovo, giving an erstwhile terrorist organization, the Kosovo Liberation Army, the victory it could not gain on its own. Six months later, Canadian troops joined Australian forces to liberate East Timor from a pro-Indonesian militia.

In the first year of a new century, Canadians should be pleased that their government is tackling real evils, from casual mutilation to tribal genocide. In your town or mine, the local brute is no longer free to abuse his wife or children behind closed doors. Why should a dictator or an ethnic majority be allowed to abuse a minority behind national boundaries? In an age of global investment and trade, transnational movements for human rights or the environment, satellite-based news networks and Internet connections, perhaps the whole idea of state sovereignty is obsolete. If business bypasses state boundaries, so must the defence of human rights.

Or should it? State sovereignty, argues Dalhousie University political scientist Denis Stairs, is ”the most fundamental of the premises of the liberal democratic state, which is the principle of government by citizen consent.” Whatever happens within Ireland, Sierra Leone or Indonesia is strictly the business of the Irish, the Sierra Leoneans or the Indonesians through whatever government exercises state authority.

Are Canadians different? As citizens of a federation and neighbours of a superpower, we live with an overlapping, divided and imperfect version of state sovereignty. Or, confident in our noble motives and liberal democracy, we may believe that we are safe from international meddling.

Like our American neighbours, though more cautiously, we support interventions that promised to end evil in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, though we were more selective about equatorial Africa and quite restrained about Chechnya.

Still, the problems of managing post- Milosevic Kosovo and the sight of Australian soldiers in East Timor might send our minds back a hundred years. Our Victorian ancestors also felt obliged to right the wrongs of their world. Reports of torture, slaughter or even routine slave-trading provoked cries for retribution against Asian or African potentates indifferent to due process or elections. Imperial campaigns in Sierra Leone, Cuba, the Philippines, China or South Africa were preceded by evidence of criminal cruelty and misgovernment as convincing as anything CNN or the CBC reported from Dili or Pristina. Like our recent wars, most Victorian campaigns were short and one-sided. Much as critics felt that NATO should have lost a few pilots as the price of pulverizing Serb infrastructure, some Victorians felt guilty at the imbalance between the Vickers machine gun and a few trade muskets.

Still, like us, Victorians relished the power to do good. Like us, the error was trying to manage the power vacuum created when villains were overthrown. Our ancestors became imperialists. We shun the label, though we have yet to discover how to guarantee good government, beyond leaving it to the people directly affected – that tiresome ”state sovereignty” principle that Axworthy challenges. Principles and ”doing good” are sometimes at odds.

– Desmond Morton is director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.