Freedom of conscience is the key.
by Janet Keeping
During the recent federal election campaign the Conservative Party announced that, upon winning, it would create an office in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to advance religious freedom around the world.
Liberty is a wonderful thing. and the liberty to live without state interference according to the beliefs you hold most dear is one of the greatest liberties of all. Unfortunately, it doesn't follow that establishing an office of international religious freedom is a good move.
First, confining such an initiative to religious freedom reflects a serious misunderstanding. What's important both here and abroad isn't religious freedom but freedom of conscience, of which freedom of religion is a species.
$5 million a year for a DFAIT office of religious freedom rather than for sorting out CIDA suggests that democracy-building is not what the proposed expenditure is about at all.
Many people's deeply held beliefs — for example, in the equal dignity and worth of women and men — are not religious, in the sense of relying on a supernatural force such as god.
But protecting citizens' freedom to believe what they choose is no less important when those beliefs are not religious in nature.
Indeed, the Canadian Constitution doesn't distinguish between religious and non-religious convictions. Section 2(a) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees us "freedom of conscience and religion."
That the framers of our Constitution recognized both religious and non-religious belief was a great advance in political philosophy.
Splendid too are Supreme Court of Canada decisions recognizing both the subjectivity of religious belief (all matters of conscience are inherently subjective) and holding that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. The religious person is free to be what she is — religious — but people are equally free not to be religious.
So those truly intent on advancing human rights in the world should stress freedom of conscience, not the narrower concept of freedom of religion.
Second, the protection of human rights and civil liberties requires the rule of law. It doesn't make much sense to talk of Canadians, or any other people, advancing freedom of conscience in countries without the rule of law. And you won't have the rule of law without democracy.
Take China, for example. As long as a small clique of people, such as the Chinese Communist Party leaders, remains unaccountable to the broader population, they can persecute the Falun Gong with impunity.
It doesn't matter whether what the Falun Gong subscribes to is a religion. What matters is that there are people for whom that set of beliefs and practices is of vital importance to finding meaning in life. As long as adherents behave peacefully and don't harm others, they should be free to follow the dictates of their conscience.
So what we should be doing around the world first and foremost, if we care about freedom of conscience and religion, is working to establish the rule of law together with its insurance policy, democracy. Targeting any particular human right or civil liberty in the absence of serious work on the broader agenda is likely to be largely futile.
Third, there is reason to doubt the federal government's seriousness about devoting sufficient funds and political will to democracy-building abroad. The natural home for such a project would be the Canadian International Development Agency, which has an annual budget of $3.575B.
For many years there have been grave problems at CIDA. But a government truly intent upon protecting liberty around the world would address what's wrong at CIDA and not waste money on a doomed venture that is ill-conceived and under-funded. Some will say $5 million CAD is a drop in the bucket, and so what if it's wasted? But that is an unethical attitude, since all taxpayer dollars should be spent wisely.
Putting $5 million a year into a DFAIT office of religious freedom instead of tackling the systemic problems at CIDA suggests that democracy-building is not what the proposed expenditure is about at all. That is unfortunate because Canadians have a huge amount to share on how to build the institutions necessary to ensuring liberty, such as the rule of law.
For all the complacency threatening the health of our own democracy, we still live in a comparatively well-governed society. We have a moral obligation to those living in jurisdictions less protective of human rights and civil liberties who want our help and look like they are in a position to benefit from it.
Ethical leadership on international development would encourage the building of sustainable democratic institutions — paramount among them, the rule of law — and not waste precious funds on token efforts that are almost guaranteed to be of no avail.
Janet Keeping is a lawyer and president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.
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