Canada’s international reputation will sink into the slime that was once the Arctic Ocean if we don’t stop two monumental hypocrisies: refusing to cap carbon emissions unless China and India do, and, secondly, lecturing Iran on human rights violations when we routinely oppress our own citizens. In both instances, Canadians cannot point the finger at government. Civil society has to step up to the plate, identify the issues clearly, and work aggressively to resolve the problem.
Tomorrow, the UN will hold a special summit that they describe as largest-ever gathering of world leaders to discuss the threat of global warming. Over 70 heads of state or government, including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President George W. Bush, are expected to attend the one-day event that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened in the hopes of breaking a stalemate on international climate negotiations between the developed and developing countries of the world.
As it stands, the international community wants an extension to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. At the same time, a bunch of developed countries, that are directly responsible for the current pickle we are in, say that they will play ball only if everybody — China and India included — is subject to the same binding caps.
These nations have a very, very good point. India is an economic powerhouse that is perfectly capable of providing a whack of services — particularly web-based services — to the world market much, much cheaper than people in North America or Europe ever could. Just one example: parents in developed countries can hire a tutor from India to work with their children online, any time day or night, unlimited hours, for a monthly subscription fee of only $100. Take a moment to think about all the goods and services you — and your workplace — currently access via the Internet and that gives you an idea of the proportion of our economy we could lose. The effects on our economies could be devastating.
Yes, the industrialized world has grown on the back of environmental devastation. But it would be stupid to be ruled by a knee-jerk impulse to “do the right thing.” The competitive advantage is already stacked against the developed world, and partly because India and China feel perfectly happy with atrociously oppressive labour legislation. Doing the right thing on one hand might support doing a very wrong thing on the other. At the same time, we cannot let complexity paralyze the development of meaningful policies. Emilie Moorhouse, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club of Canada, reports that “. . . Canada has been extremely destructive at these negotiations and has fought to prevent any progress in terms of setting new targets in this process.”
While Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists that Canada is a leader by virtue of his government policies to slash greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, his targets are linked to growth. The more we grow, the more we pollute, and that’s why we have no solid caps. In fact, Harper’s caps allow for increases in emissions. Which is not a cap — it’s a buoy, rising as pollution does. Secretary-General Ban has called on civil society to act with urgency, and asked Greenpeace directly to mobilize public opinion.
Even Canadians who do not join organizations can engage: we can keep in mind that Canada has a much better chance of meeting Kyoto targets if we all take the bus. Worried about economic slowdown? We can spend the dollars we would have spent on cars and gas on made-in-Canada goods and services.
Meanwhile, while Iran’s claims that Canada routinely violates human rights are clearly a transparent ploy to deflect our own, similar accusations, they also happen to be true. Canada’s failure to support the rights of First Nations’ children to safety, education, access to their culture, and even clean water, is a matter of public record and a national disgrace. Our failure to protect aboriginal women from violence is abysmal. The number of aboriginal men who suffer from violence is just as incredible — and the First Nations are only one of the oppressed groups in our population. Just lately, Canada voted against a UN declaration of indigenous rights, saying that here in Canada, we balance group rights with individual rights. Only four other nations voted against the declaration — Australia, New Zealand, the US and us — all insisting that the declaration is unconstitutional. This may be true — but as a civil society, we still have to step up to address the crimes that Canada commits against certain of our citizens.
And again, context renders accusations from Iran complex. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour says she urged Iranian officials in talks in Tehran last week to ensure the right to peaceful public expression (particularly in advocating for women’s rights), and raised the subject of the execution of juveniles. Many of those executions are related to what Iran calls “immoral behavior.” Murder, rape, adultery, armed robbery, apostasy, and drug smuggling are all punishable by death under Iran’s Sharia law. Portugal’s envoy, speaking on behalf of the 27-member EU, said: “We are very concerned with the human rights situation in Iran, in particular with the rising number of executions.” Amnesty International, which says Iran has one of the highest rates of executions in the world, last week said it had recorded 210 so far this year, against 177 for all of last year.
In context, Iran’s comments are ridiculous. But we still have to grow up — and clean up our own back yard.