Tue, Jan 08, 2008 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Can Ottawa even be bothered?

As the results of a survey last month showed, Canadians are feeling quite bubbly about their country's prospects this year, with 81 percent saying the year would be good for Canada. Only 52 percent, however, said the year would bring positive tidings for the planet as a whole.

On the heels of those results, Ottawa announced that Canadian Trade Minister David Emerson would visit China and Mongolia from Sunday through this Friday to pursue trade and investment opportunities. Emerson is the first top Canadian official to visit Mongolia in a decade and the first senior trade official from Canada to visit China since the October meeting in Ottawa between Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Dalai Lama, a morsel that didn't go down too well in Beijing.

Nothing could be more indicative of Canada's -- and by extension, the world's -- schizophrenic relationship with Beijing. While the left hand welcomes a spiritual leader resented by Beijing, the right hand moves to expand the US$42 billion two-way trade relationship between the countries. Nothing is said about human rights in China, or, for that matter, about news over the weekend that Chinese authorities had forced Tibetans to sign a document, under duress, stating that the Dalai Lama should never be allowed to come back to Tibet. Ottawa has also been mute on the unwarranted postponement of universal suffrage in Hong Kong, which Emerson will also be visiting for trade chatter.

Certainly not alone in this, Canada has adopted the facile road of symbolism: Allowing a leader like the Dalai Lama to visit a capital, or conferring medals of honor upon such individuals -- though commendable -- is easy and relatively risk-free. Beijing may be vociferous in expressing its anger, but given time the boiling subsides and it is once again ready to talk money.

As for the Mongolia leg of Emerson's journey to the East, Canadians should be aware that Canada is the second-largest foreign investor in Mongolia, mostly in the mining sector. While some blithely quip that many Mongolians see Canada as a "potential savior of the economy," the reality, as the UN Development Program said in a report, is that heavy mining in Mongolia has devastated the environment and the profits from the sector have failed to trickle down to the general population, which remains largely impoverished.

As Amnesty International put it in its most recent report on Mongolia, no compensation has been paid to the many herdsmen who have been displaced and had their livelihoods destroyed by mining, or the more than 57,000 people in one region alone who are now without drinking water -- also the result of heavy mining.

Freedom of expression, meanwhile, remains a problem in Mongolia, where the state retains an authoritarian grip on the media. Last year, about 40 reporters critical of the government were threatened, investigated, arrested or beaten.

In one trip alone, Canada's trade minister will be visiting three locations where the human rights situation leaves much to be desired. Sadly, all that trade talk will not be accompanied by concomitant discussions on improving the lot of those who suffer under undemocratic rule, with losses ranging from their basic rights to the environment they live in.

Without doubt, raising those issues would be much more onerous than shaking hands with the Dalai Lama in Ottawa. But a responsible government would nevertheless seek to tackle them.

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