This article was originally published in Embassy, and is reprinted with permission.
It’s moving month in Ottawa’s capital, and we already have a few clues of what’s coming and what’s going.
The Liberals are making good on campaign promises, but there are at least a few areas where it’s unclear if the Liberals will want to renovate, rebuild or just tear down. One of those is the new Office of Religious Freedom, barely out of adolescence since launched in 2013. But there are very strong, Liberal, reasons for this government to promote and expand this initiative.
The legacy of the Liberal Party of Canada is one that has always taken human rights very seriously. Liberal internationalism, classically, has human rights and the dignity of the human person at the centre of its global agenda. Liberalism manages to marry two competing claims in foreign policy: moral action and national interest. Canada, and Liberals especially, have always argued these are not paradoxes but two sides of the same coin.
Where human dignity, where freedom of the person and of communities, are respected, local and international security are strengthened. Freedom of religion or belief, as part of the package of human rights necessary for any society to flourish, is not peripheral to national security, it is at its very foundation. This was the idea which animated the establishment of the American Office of Religious Freedom in 1998, and one of the reasons the Liberal Party of that day also took religious freedom seriously.
In fact, while it may have been a Conservative prime minister that launched the office in 2013, the idea had roots stretching back to Axworthy and others. This is because the Office of Religious Freedom is not a Liberal or Conservative idea, it’s a Canadian idea.
This is why, second, a renewed Liberal foreign policy will find this office a strong and necessary pillar for Canadian foreign policy in the current international environment. We are now living amidst what some have called a global resurgence of religion, and what others like Daniel Philpott have more pointedly simply called God’s Century (Norton, 2011).
As reported not only by PEW but by an increasing number of academics and research institutes, the global climate of fear and of anxiety about religious diversity is reaching a fevered pitch. Look no further than the so-called Niqab debate at home during the election.
For better or worse, people are afraid, and that fear is sometimes making societies and policies that are neither liberal nor free. And abroad the case is much, much worse. Persecution in Muslim-majority countries is escalating, not only against Yzidis, Christians, Jews, and others we’ve heard so much about, but even more sharply against co-religionists: reformist Muslims, or those Muslims considered insufficiently pious.
More than three-quarters of the world now live under some kind of state or social restriction regarding their religion. The numbers are rising, and the restrictions are getting more severe. The genius of Canada, regardless of its political masters, is a tradition and a legacy of living together amidst, rather than despite, our deepest diversity. We have work to do at home, undoubtedly, but the world also badly needs us abroad.
Finally, and thirdly, Canada in its newest Office of Religious Freedom has joined many of our allies in vigorously pursuing freedom of religion or belief as part of a package of indivisible human rights. The United States has had an office for nearly two decades, and has recently launched an Office on Religion and Global Affairs.
The European Union and major democratic nations including the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, and others are developing round tables, diplomatic experts, and offices of their own to begin tackling this plainly urgent development in global affairs. Canada, in other words, is in good company when it comes to this office, working together with friends and allies on a major issue of common concern.
This is one area where the incoming government can not only continue but extend and expand partnerships with the United Nations, with the United States and Europe, and with countries and organizations all over the globe.
The time is therefore ripe for the incoming government to expand the work of the Office of Religious Freedom, increase its funding and interrelationships with other like-minded allied organizations, and to unapologetically put human rights at the centre of Canadian foreign affairs. This is not just consistent as a Liberal idea, it’s consistent as a Canadian, as a human idea. It is one whose time has come.