Canada has long been a proponent of universal human rights and successive governments have often faced the difficult task of matching Canadian values with policy on the international stage.  In the area of international trade specifically, concerns for the maintenance and enforcement of what Canadians believe to be indivisible human rights have certainly had mixed results towards Canada’s trade policies.  Trade with Asia, a region one not normally associates with a stellar human rights record, has put to test Canada’s commitment to such values.

A new report by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada titled Advancing Canada’s Engagement with Asia on Human Rights has been published with the aim of providing Canadian government, NGO, and business leaders with recommendations on how to engage their Asian counterparts on improving human rights.  Although the report focuses around this three-pronged (government, NGO, business) soft power approach of encouraging our Asian partners to promote and strengthen their human rights commitments, it is actually fairly unsurprising and uninventive in most of its policy recommendations.  However, it is in the specific area of business and trade relations that I believe this report has the most to offer.

The report lays out some interesting recommendations for trade and business representatives that all converge on a basic assumption: increased attention on human rights within an economy will bring about greater economic benefits for both Asia and Canada.  The report’s recommendations include:

  • Canada’s trade agenda should reflect Canada’s emphasis on universal human rights,
  • The Canadian government should get tougher on Canadian investors investing in Asia, such as require investors to report payments to foreign governments and ensure that companies they are dealing with are respecting ILO standards,
  • The Canadian government should provide companies with an electronic database of human rights violations to give them an idea of the environment they are operating in,
  • Canadian companies should be required to incorporate human rights policies (following the UN’s “Ruggie Framework”) into their commercial agreements with Asian partners/governments and communicate the benefits of abiding by such policies to their partners,
  • Canadian companies should be encouraged to report to the Canadian government on any human rights issues and violations that they experience or witness.

While the effectiveness of such a soft power approach on actually influencing the human rights practices of countries like China, Singapore, and Vietnam is debatable, these recommendations do give Canadian actors smart ways to affect change in the contexts that they operate in wherever that may be.  They also serve as good starting points that can be further developed and customized to serve the varying business environments that Canadian businesses in Asia are operating in. It will be interesting to see what the responses of our government leaders and captains of industries will be if they even notice this report at all…

Read the full report here.

Featured Photo by by Josh Estey

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