Alex Neve of Amnesty International at a news conference on Parlaiment Hill in Ottawa. (CP PHOTO/Fred Chartrand)
OTTAWA — Canada's 10-year preoccupation with trade as a means of fixing human rights abuses has been a dismal failure, human rights activists said Thursday.
They called on Prime Minister Paul Martin to take a firmer stand when he visits China during his Asian tour next week.
"We cannot leave human rights simply to the whim of market forces,'' Alex Neve, head of Amnesty International Canada, told a news conference.
"To have pursued that as almost the solitary approach to how human rights were going to be raised and advanced in the Canada-China relationship was inadequate.''
A coalition of non-governmental advocates say Martin has a unique chance to correct a failed foreign policy on his first official visit to Beijing as prime minister.
Martin departs early Saturday on a diplomatic mission to Thailand, Sir Lanka, India, Japan and China.
The fast-growing Chinese economy and its hunger for raw materials and resource expertise give Canada leverage it must use, the activists said, especially given China's new-found interest in currying foreign favour in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics.
Those forces have done nothing yet to end the Chinese government's abuse of rights and the rule of law, said Tenzig Dargyal of the Canada Tibet Committee.
Last spring, Martin became the first Canadian prime minister to meet with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader who has been outlawed by Beijing. The meeting earned Martin lavish praise from the Tibetan expatriate community and angered Chinese authorities.
Senior government officials say Martin will encourage exploratory talks between the Dalai Lama's emissaries and Beijing when he meets Chinese Premier Wen Jiaboa next Friday, a development Dargyal welcomes.
"But at the same time, the overall situation is more negative than positive, unfortunately,'' said Dargyal. "In our case we are not seeing this policy of (economic) engagement producing more positive news.''
Through a series of Team Canada trade missions in the 1990s, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien stressed global trade and open investment as the road to human rights reforms.
"There's nothing as nervous as a million dollars,'' Chretien liked to say, arguing that investors fleeing corrupt and lawless societies are a powerful incentive for change.
China's entry in 2001 into the World Trade Organization was also considered a likely key development in reforming the country.
But many Chinese rights groups say nothing has changed.
Martin's officials signalled a subtle shift in emphasis in a background briefing this week, stressing that human rights issues will be tackled through broad-based engagement with Chinese professionals and development projects.
"By reaching out to them and giving them the experience to meet with Canadian counterparts, you begin to build a degree of awareness and interest that wasn't there before,'' said one official.
"The legal system hasn't been allowed to develop as it should, so what we're trying to do is encourage that development one person at a time.... There are growing aspirations for change, and we're helping to meet that.''
Human rights activists would like something a little more robust from Martin.
They are looking for blunt talk, specific proposals for institutional reform, measurable benchmarks, more international oversight and a linkage between investment and improved human rights.
Trade remains at the forefront of the prime minister's latest diplomatic foray.
Officials said "significant commercial deals'' will be formally signed during the nine-day excursion. International Trade Minister Jim Peterson leads a delegation of Canadian business leaders to China that will coincide with Martin's stay.