Windsor under siege: Lloyd Axworthy’s crusade – is it all just a show?

Boy scout foreign minister hides behind police security lines to promote human rights in Latin America


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WINDSOR — The gritting of Lloyd Axworthy’s teeth is making his left cheek shimmer like the surface of the Detroit River, and from time to time he takes two fingers to his face to keep it still. It’s Sunday afternoon, and the Canadian foreign affairs minister — sometimes touted as a possible Nobel Prize candidate — is in a tent filled with displays about trees and children.

“They always talked about what they could do if they had a computer,” he says wistfully, describing how Canada connected some of the world’s street kids to the Internet.

But we reporters can barely hear a word — not because of his cold that’s verging on flu, but because Buzz Hargrove is ranting over a loudspeaker mere metres away about the need for a “people’s agenda, an agenda for social justice,” which is not the one the 3,000 people outside think is being carried out inside here at the meeting of the Organization of American States.

This was to be the crowning moment of Axworthy’s five years as Canada’s globe-trotting, do-gooding, standing-up-to-the-Americans foreign affairs minister. This meeting of the OAS general assembly was to be his chance to showcase his “human security agenda,” a post-Cold War approach to solving problems not through military means but by putting people first. He’ll still get to talk it up, but he’ll do it behind cops, steel wire and attack dogs, an irony he doesn’t want. The demonstrators are “voices of negativism,” picking on the wrong meeting, he sniffs as he turns on his heel from reporters.

In the end, the protestors do not shut down the OAS meeting, much to the relief of the non-governmental organizations from around the hemisphere who came to Windsor thanks in large part to Axworthy’s good graces. But in buying into his human security agenda, are briefcase-and-cellphone-toting NGO staffers acting more responsibly than the kids with puppets and spray paint, or are they deluding themselves?

Certainly, you won’t hear any of them — especially visitors from other countries — diss Axworthy outright. Carlos Rodriguez-Mejia of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, who’s living in Washington now because of threats on his life back home, reflects the view of most. Axworthy’s program isn’t perfect, but it’s very different from the way the Americans do foreign policy, and it has the potential to do lots of good.


Inner sanctum

“It gives us a way to talk about the human rights situation in our countries,” he tells me.

You might say it’s a way of doing politics through talk, by opening up the inner sanctum of power to all the groups that want to influence governments: human rights, women, indigenous and development organizations. There are 40 non-governmental groups represented here, 10 from Canada and 30 from other countries, mostly Central and South America. For the first time, they’re in the main assembly hall, not stuck in a room watching the proceedings on closed-circuit TV.

On an issue like Peru, whose president rewrote the constitution and stacked the court in order to allow himself an illegal third term in office, Rodriguez-Mejia says redress can only be achieved through political pressure and international embarrassment. Back in the day, international support groups called for the financial stick to be used on rogue countries. But not now.

“I don’t like sanctions against countries,” he says. “It affects poor people more than the business and political elites of these countries.”

The OAS, which has its own human rights court and commission, becomes all the more important when politics is the route to change, he says.

And so, on Monday morning at 8 am, the NGOs gather in their Sunday best and sit in those big, black, official-looking chairs with armrests. These face-to-face sessions with the ministers are still a novelty. This morning’s session — the largest-ever of its kind at an OAS meeting — offers a poignant symbol of the best and the worst of these get-togethers.

Español is the langue du jour, and even a cynic would have to acknowledge the inclusion of so many groups from “the South” — no, not the U.S., but those Latin American countries where democracy is a tender bud that might sprout with the right nourishment, or shrivel the way it has in Peru.

But let’s not get carried away. Lloyd Axworthy is the only minister who has showed up for this morning’s meeting. And a Canadian media handler, trying to put the meeting in context, points out that this is not part of the official OAS agenda. The next big OAS gig is the Summit of the Americas in Quebec next April, and the NGOs will once again have to grovel and scrape for a place at the table.

Down to business. The speakers embark on a shopping list of issues — indigenous people, the disabled, Colombia, reform of the inter-American human rights system, Peru, women, labour rights….

“It was all over the place,” agrees Warren Allmand, director of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, one of the NGOs at the table. “They’re all legitimate things, but when you do that and the OAS listens, they can say, ‘Yes, we heard all those issues and they’re all important’ — but there’s no one or two issues that we’ll drive home.”

Newcomers to this game are not as wily as Canadian lobbyists in realizing the importance of focus, focus, focus, he says.

For all the verbiage, there’s hardly a whisper about economic matters, although recession and globalization have their hands around the throats of many countries in the region. It’s left to Hassan Yussuff of the Canadian Labour Congress to remind the meeting of the cataclysmic potential of free trade for the Americas — the subject of next year’s Quebec summit.

For the most part, NGOs have bought into the OAS system of divvying up the issues into “baskets”: human rights in this one, reform of the OAS in that one, and trade over there and no business of the NGOs.

“How long can they keep dissociating trade and human rights?” asks Lucy Lamarche of the department of juridical science at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

Perhaps that’s the big flaw in the Axworthy human security agenda. Issues like drug dealing, corruption and the illegal trade in small arms — biggies at the OAS at the moment — are talked about as if they were the result of human evil rather than people’s response to the devastation of their economies. The Inter-American convention against corruption that Axworthy signed with much ado makes it illegal to offer or grant a bribe to a public official, but corruption is associated with the drug trade and the drug trade is associated with poverty.

As the foreign minister of Saint Lucia pointed out in the debate on the human security agenda, quoting Bob Marley, “A hungry man is an angry man.”

And while Axworthy talks up his people-first program, the Inter-American Development Bank, which has a formal relationship with the OAS and of which Canada is a member, is financing the privatization of water utilities, sparking riots in several countries over fears of mass layoffs and higher charges. IADB conference discussed how to “enhance the political acceptance” of privatization.

“It’s all about making connections, and it’s still hard work,” says Jill Sinclair, Axworthy’s director-general of the global and human issues. “There has to be policy coherence.” To that end, she says, Axworthy met with reps of the IADB and the World Bank in Windsor. “There has to be a symbiotic relationship.”

Allmand — who served with Axworthy in Liberal cabinets — says it would be a mistake to blame his fellow Liberal left-wingers for not living up to the rhetoric of the human security agenda. Blame Jean Chretien, he advises.

NGO reps are rolling their eyes all day Monday over the PM’s speech kicking off the OAS meet. As Axworthy fidgeted in the chair next to him, Uncle Jean went on and on and on about the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, and the words “human rights” barely passed his lips.

“A lot of the big business lobbyists lobby the prime minister,” Allmand says, and they thereby nix a holistic consideration of trade issues tthat would include human rights and the environment.

“I’ve told human rights groups when we go and lobby the human rights section in foreign affairs, ‘These are people who are with us.’ If we’re going to make breakthroughs, we have to lobby the department of finance and the prime minister’s office. They have to be convinced that trade can’t exist apart from all these other things.”

glennw@nowtoronto.com

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