Back Page: The Burma boondoggle and human rights

Back Page: The Burma boondoggle and human rights

There are two ways for Canadian lawyers to visit dictatorships like China and Burma. One is to meet with local dissidents and civil rights activists and learn about their repression and bring international legal and political pressure on the regimes. The other is the way chosen by the Canadian and Ontario Bar Associations.


In March, the OBA sent a delegation to Burma, a country that brutally represses its own citizens and where civil rights do not exist. It is a regime that murders its political dissidents — or in the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning democracy activist who is too well known to be murdered without international incident — holds them under indefinite house arrest.

  Suu Kyi has asked that foreign tourists boycott Burma, so as not to lend economic or moral support to its regime. “To suggest that there’s anything new that tourists can teach the people of Burma about their own situation is not simply patronizing, it’s also racist,” she said in a 1999 interview.

Don’t tell that to the OBA. They’re sending a group of 60 Ontario lawyers and their spouses, eager to see Burma’s tourist attractions and shop in its markets. It’s a ghoulish tourism — rather like taking a bargain-hunting trip to North Korea. To deodorize their grisly vacation, the OBA has set aside a few evenings for “legal meetings.” However, anyone other than government officials or their agents who dare to meet with foreigners will be arrested by the Burmese government.

  Don’t bother Morrisville, Ont., lawyer Doug Grenkie, the past president of the OBA, with any of that. “There are lawyers practising there and people who need our support,” he says. Of course, Grenkie doesn’t plan to actually “support” anyone — he will be filing no lawsuits in Burma’s kangaroo courts on behalf of Suu Kyi or other dissidents; he won’t be delivering any petitions to government officials, and he won’t be taking Burma’s plight to international human rights agencies at the United Nations or elsewhere. No, according to the itinerary, his entourage will buy some lovely Burmese lacquerware and rubies, and there’s even a starlight cruise on the Ayeyarwaddy River. That’s the depth of the OBA’s commitment to human rights: they’ll keep eating hors d’oeuvres until Suu Kyi is free.

The OBA shouldn’t bear all the embarrassment, though their trip to Burma is amongst the most crass. For years, the Canadian Bar Association has engaged in farcical “exchanges” with their counterparts in China, too. There is indeed an exchange that goes on, but it’s not Western lawyers imparting our liberal legal traditions. In exchange for a luxurious vacation for Canadian lawyers and their spouses, the CBA gives China moral cover. That’s the exchange. Whenever groups like Amnesty International highlight China’s appalling lack of human rights, Beijing can point to the CBA’s eager apologists.

The CBA sends lawyers to “teach” Chinese lawyers, for example, about how we run criminal defence trials in Canada. Nice, but China isn’t governed by Canadian law; its conviction rate is over 95 per cent, appeals are extremely rare, and the death penalty is ubiquitous. Of course, many of these “crimes” are not what we would consider crimes — the crime of political dissidence remains law in China, and even following illegal faiths, from Falun Gong to non-sanctioned Christianity, is punishable by imprisonment or death, including a forced human organ harvesting program that would make Josef Mengele proud.

What is the point of “teaching” Chinese lawyers about constitutional freedoms, procedural fairness and the rule of law when China’s legal system has none of those traits and when it is just another arm of the Communist Party? There is a word for such a sham that the Russian Communists invented: the Potemkin Village. At least that was built by the Communists themselves as a propaganda ploy. It’s a Chinese innovation to get Western liberals to pay for a propaganda exercise to cover up China’s appalling — and worsening — human rights record.

It is strange that the CBA and OBA are a party to fascist regimes like China and Burma. In Canada, the bar associations are on the cutting edge of human rights and civil rights, relentlessly badgering Canada’s government on everything from gay marriage to racial quotas to outlawing spanking. Canada may be one of the freest countries in the world, but that’s never enough for the CBA. China — the world’s greatest executioner — is the toast of the CBA. Perhaps all the Canadian government has to do to defang the CBA is take some lawyers and their spouses on an exotic shopping vacation.

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