3 min

Rights groups concerned about changes to foreign policy language

Minister downplays shift, but changes may impact Canada's role in helping women and queers abroad

NEWSPEAK. Lindsay Mossman, Amnesty International's women's rights campaigner, says the language shift "moves away from child and LGBT rights." Credit: Neil McKinnon

Human rights groups at home and abroad are worried about the Canadian government’s recent changes to foreign policy language. Since the Tories came into power in 2006, there has been a shift in foreign policy terminology — “child soldier” is now referred to as “children in armed conflict”, “international humanitarian law” has changed to simply “international law”, and “gender equality” is now “equality of men and women.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has downplayed the shift, but some critics are sceptical as to why the changes were made in the first place.

“Removing ‘humanitarian’ from our foreign policy could have real implications in the positions we take,” says Lindsay Mossman, Amnesty International women’s rights campaigner. “If the changing of the wording doesn’t mean anything, then why go to the effort of changing it? Why make the changes? The term ‘gender-based violence’ changes from society to society. Within international law, ‘gender equality’ includes men, women, boys and girls, as well as transgendered people. ‘Equality of men and women’ moves away from child and LGBT rights.”

Mossman also says she wonders if Canada is now using “children in armed conflict” instead of “child soldier” in its foreign policy as a way of attempting to walk away from helping Omar Khadr. Khadr has been held in Guatamano Bay detention camp since 2002 after being accused of throwing a grenade that killed one US soldier and wounded another.

“By not using ‘child soldier’ in our international policy, it’s clear the Canadian government is not keen on helping [Khadr],” says Mossman.

“Gender identity is one of the areas where people face persecution in many countries,” says Chris Morrissey, coordinator for LEGIT, a group helping gays and lesbians along with their partners get landed immigrant status in Canada. “In Iran, being gay is punishable by death, but you can have surgery and become a transsexual. But some might feel their life isn’t worth living afterwards. The language changes in our foreign policy is a step backwards.”

Paul Dewar, NDP MP for Ottawa-Centre and the party’s foreign affairs critic, calls the language changes “deeply disturbing.”

“When diplomats are told not to use the words used in signed treaties, it causes us problems. It undermines our reputation when we tell our diplomatic core we can’t use words like ‘gender equality’,” says Dewar.

Dewar says dropping words like “gender identity” in our foreign service can potentially slam doors on how Canada helps stop sexual violence in places where rape is being used as a weapon, like Congo.

“It’s a deliberate strategy,” says Dewar. “We have treaties signed using ‘gender equality’. [The Conservative government’s Foreign Affairs department] is politicizing Canada’s face in the world to an extent we haven’t seen before.”

In an Aug 19, 2009 Embassy Magazine article titled, Cannon defends the language changes as mostly “semantics.”

“In other circumstances… whether it be the responsibility to protect, we’re going to be changing policies so that they reflect what Canada’s values are and what Canadians said when they supported us during the last election,” Cannon told the magazine. “That’s the role of government, that’s the role of an elected official.”

Stephen Brown is a University of Ottawa professor who teaches a course on the politics of foreign aid. He says the recent wording changes to our foreign policies “don’t strictly define what Canada will and won’t do” and that the government is “signalling they have less of an interest of the broader issue of gender itself.”

“[The wording changes] doesn’t necessarily mean that if supporting a particular cause is not mentioned in policy that it can’t be done,” says Brown. “For example, supporting senior citizens might not be written into our foreign policy but that doesn’t mean the government won’t help seniors abroad. As it is, Canada doesn’t fund a large number of LGBT groups abroad. There is no fund for sexual minorities abroad. Individual non-governmental agencies can apply for funding. Most Canadian funding provided for sexuality is in helping the prevention AIDS transmission and education, usually helping men who have sex with men. They’re not defending ‘gay rights.’ Canadian funds won’t be used to fight for the freedom of same-sex relationships abroad.”

Brown says wording such as “equality of men and women” makes our foreign policies seem narrower, but that it has yet to be interpreted.

“The change in language makes it seem like it’s only talking about equality between men and women,” says Brown. “Gender equality can be interpreted to be broader. It can involve the questioning of gender and sex. The overall effect of [the wording changes] might not mean a whole lot.”

Foreign Affairs spokesperson Dana Cryderman says the wording won’t change how our foreign service does business abroad. She also says the change in language from “gender equality” to “equality between men and women” won’t leave out gay men, lesbians or transgendered people.

“If you want to talk about one word versus another, it doesn’t make a difference,” says Cryderman. “Our policy has remains the same. That’s all there is to it. [Foreign Affairs] will continue defending the rights of gay and transgendered people who are persecuted in other countries. We have not changed our position on these issues. We continue to have a principled approach and promote freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

Via email, Cryderman added that Canada co-sponsored a Dec 2008 UN statement on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as a similar resolution at the Organization of American States.