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How Canada can help promote democracy abroad

Canada’s democracy centre will take shape in difficult times

By: /
16 March, 2022
A video wall displaying the participants in the White House's Summit for Democracy stands in the South Court Auditorium on December 09, 2021 in Washington, DC. According to the State Department, the virtual summit will bring together 100 leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector to "set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action." (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At the December 2021 Summit for Democracy Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the establishment of a Canadian centre to promote “democracy and good governance around the world.”

Calling the defence of democracy “the challenge of our time,” President Biden hosted the two-day virtual summit “to renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad.” Organized around the themes of defending against authoritarianism, combating corruption and advancing human rights, the summit brought together governments, multilateral institutions, human rights defenders and journalists, mayors, parliamentarians, business and labour leaders.  With an invitation list mired in politics, the summit saw trade-offs between values and interests. But it also usefully convened like-minded countries, took stock of the global democratic recession and prompted action. A follow up summit is slated for later this year.  

In this time of crisis democracy and geopolitics are being closely intertwined as politicians and media divide the world into a binary struggle for freedom versus tyranny. In his State of the Union address, President Biden said that “in the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”  Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has described the Ukraine crisis as a “struggle between democracy and authoritarianism” and a “direct challenge to the rules-based international order.”

But behind the headlines and singular moments of rare clarity democracy is also tested day-by-day by exclusive media bubbles and digital misinformation, groups that reject politics, and by cyber surveillance and the gradual weakening of institutions that hold government accountable. In times of polarizing turbulence, moving beyond binary divisions can enable a more flexible response to ambiguity. 

In a turbulent world, establishing an independent Canadian centre to support human rights and democracy abroad may seem a daunting if not quixotic undertaking. But a world in flux also means that much is in play and weighing in the balance.

Among the worlds’ more than 200 sovereign states, there is a huge variety of political regimes. Most are hybrid systems with elements of both democracy and autocracy. Many are in a grey zone where competitive elections, liberal constitutions and a degree of pluralism exist alongside strong state control. Others are fragile, conflict-prone and vulnerable to democratic backsliding. Still other regimes emphasize political unity through religion or legitimacy through economic performance. Democratic values, institutions and practices can be supported in a variety of regimes. Canada’s contribution to supporting democracy abroad will come from sustained and serious engagement and not an on-off switch set by the exigencies of the moment. 

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The Prime Minister’s announcement  dusts off a 2015 Liberal Party platform promise to establish a “Canadian Centre for Peace, Order and Good Government” that had stayed on the backburner during the Trudeau Liberals’ first two terms.

Foreign Minister Melanie Joly’s mandate letter calls on her to set up a “centre to expand the availability of Canadian expertise and assistance to those seeking to build peace, advance justice, promote human rights, inclusion, democracy, and deliver good governance.” Alongside these areas of potential activity is the need to “expand fast and flexible support for fragile and emerging democracies, increasing Canada’s diplomatic presence in regions of strategic importance, and working closely with democratic partners to promote open, transparent and inclusive governance around the world.” 

Canada’s democracy centre will take shape in difficult times. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken global security. The other key geopolitical shift is the meteoric rise of China and a rival governance model of managed, market-driven growth with few of the civil, political and cultural rights embedded in international law. The Xi Jinping era has strengthened the grip of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as China’s economic, military and soft power is projected globally, becoming a pole of attraction not only in the Indo-Pacific region, but also in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

Democracy, meanwhile, is on the backfoot across much of the globe, and to an extent not seen for decades. In its 2021 report, Freedom House refers to the ‘“15th consecutive year in the decline of global freedom.” Other surveys chart increasing levels of public dissatisfaction with democratic institutions and political leaders, notably in long-established democracies. While the Pew Research Center survey found that most Canadians polled were satisfied with the state of their democracy, there are also persistent democratic deficits of income inequality, inclusion and reconciliation with Indigenous nations. 

As democracies struggle, they are being challenged by skilled autocrats who govern by polarizing the public, spreading misinformation, muzzling dissent and changing the rules of the game to weaken civil societies and subvert democratic institutions. Supporting global pluralism is a defining challenge of the times, yet the liberal democratic order has never looked so tarnished or ill-equipped to meet momentous challenges such as rising income inequality, or climate change or the pandemic. The United States is deeply divided and facing threats to its democratic institutions and its social well-being. A more inward-looking America’s standing and ability to lead is being reconfigured, and the Summit for Democracy is both an acknowledgement of that new reality and a call for a shared approach to the current challenges. 

There is, in short, a global democratic leadership vacuum. There is an opportunity for Canada to step up and play a larger role supporting human rights and democracy worldwide. The proposed democracy centre is one practical way for Canadians to engage partners around the world on the governance challenges of our time.  The new centre’s credibility and staying power will be improved by also asking hard questions about Canada’s own democracy. By engaging widely with Canadians, and by linking its work abroad to challenges at home, the centre can carry out its mandate with a degree of humility, acknowledging missteps in our own democratic journey and a willingness to share experience and learn from others.

A few value propositions may help guide the centre’s activity. First, long term success in supporting rights, democracy and good governance depends on efforts within societies and cannot be externally imposed. Second, while democracy is a demanding political ideal and not a universal prescription there is growing recognition that the legitimacy of any governing order should include respect for human rights. Third, given the complexity and variety of political regimes, drawing a binary division of democracy versus autocracy is best avoided. Finally, all human rights (civil and political, economic, social and cultural) have equal importance; they are interdependent, indivisible and mutually reinforcing.

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In a turbulent world, establishing an independent Canadian centre to support human rights and democracy abroad may seem a daunting if not quixotic undertaking. But a world in flux also means that much is in play and weighing in the balance. The challenges include supporting front line democracies like Ukraine and Taiwan and voices for peace in Russia itself, engaging a rising and assertive China, combating the technologies of repression, helping fragile democracies and slowing the drift to authoritarianism. At this inflection point in history, human rights, democracy and good governance need clear-eyed champions who can take the long view.   

The ability of citizens to communicate without fear is a keystone of democracy. But repressive states are increasingly adept in their use of technologies for repression and social control. In the murky corners of the digital world, shadowy companies sell spyware enabling states to carry out cyber surveillance, hacking, online harassment and digital targeting. Civil society organizations are especially vulnerable to digital threats and most have few resources to deal with them. Citizen Lab is a leading Canadian public interest research hub focused on digital threats, including exposing spyware and targeted espionage. Its work should be shared or replicated wherever freedom of expression is under threat. As digital attacks shrink civic space, Canada’s democracy centre could make a difference helping human rights and other civic organizations enhance their cyber security.

Support for political parties would engage Canadian parliamentarians and help reinforce the legislature’s buy in for the work of the proposed centre. By itself, however, political party assistance is quite narrowly focused on political elites. And like-minded organizations in the U.S., UK, and Europe all have significant expertise in this area. However, promoting women’s political leadership and participation is one area where a Canadian democracy support centre could make a distinctive difference that is also aligned with our current ‘feminist foreign policy’.

Active in every kind of political system, human rights defenders are on the front lines in the struggle for human dignity, the rule of law and more open societies. Repressive governments use a range of tools to attack them from defamation, threats, and intimidation to surveillance, judicial harassment, arbitrary detention and violence. Our development dollars not only help build schools and health clinics, wells and irrigation systems. They can also help empower marginalized groups to know their rights, access services, hold governments accountable and fight injustice and corruption. Through support for human rights defenders and legal literacy, the new centre could help address not only civil and political rights, such as freedom of expression or combating gender-based violence, but also poverty-related problems such as legal identity, land disputes, displacement and access to basic services.

Support for the rights of Indigenous peoples, including Indigenous women, would engage Canada’s own difficult history by potentially reaching out to our First Nations to share their experience. Canada has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The challenge now is to align government legislation, policies and services with the minimum standards set out in the Declaration. Implementing the Declaration is an area where the proposed centre could facilitate a sharing of experiences among jurisdictions with Indigenous populations. 

Including peacebuilding among the potential areas of work for the new centre speaks to our peacekeeping traditions and to the aspirations of the Trudeau government to restore Canada’s liberal internationalist legacy. One aspect of the peace agenda is dialogue and mediation in fragile, conflict-prone societies. While our political culture is built on compromise and accommodation these skills have not often found expression internationally. As a core member of security alliance and trade structures, Canadian governments may be constrained to serve as an impartial mediator. They may also have little appetite to engage outlawed groups or odious states that violate international norms and fundamental human rights. But an arms-length Canadian democracy support centre may have more room for manoeuvre. It could, for example, support back channel and unofficial civil society dialogues sometimes called Track Two diplomacy or, less controversially, fund research and training in mediation with or by international partners. 

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Planning to establish the centre is now underway. There are several ways to do so: integrated within the bureaucracy as a distinct unit with its own funding stream and programs; as a publicly funded but arms-length institution reporting to Parliament; or as a fully independent but partly publicly funded non-profit organization. Each approach has its advantages and risks. The key issues to be resolved are the governance structure, the degree of independence from government and accountability for the management of public funds.

A publicly funded but arms-length institution established by an Act of Parliament and reporting annually to Parliament through the Minister of Foreign Affairs may take time to establish but represents a viable option for Canada. Working at the creative nexus of government, the legislature and civil society would call for sound convening skills and judgement to navigate controversial issues and choices. Its board would help set strategic direction, review activities and approve budgets and would include both independent Canadian and international experts. Senior management and professional staff would ideally be drawn from diverse cultural backgrounds. Funds would be drawn from the international assistance envelope giving the Minister of Foreign Affairs final accountability.

However, if the government is in a hurry to have the centre up and running for a Summit for Democracy follow up meeting, it could establish an independent non-profit organization. It’s been done before in establishing the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security (CIIPS), the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre (PPC) and the Canada Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL).

Whatever model is chosen, there is no sure way to future proof the centre. Unfortunately, Canada’s support for globally engaged institutions reliant on the public purse is filled with examples where governments have launched initiatives with a flourish of enthusiasm to be followed some years later by their closure for lack of funds, for perceived lack of impact, following controversy or following a shift in priorities. The Harper government’s abrupt closure of the arms-length Rights and Democracy is the most extreme example. But while quickly set up, FOCAL, CIIPS and PPC were all short-lived and closed as government priorities changed.

Proposed funding levels of $50 million for the centre’s annual funding, if confirmed, would be in keeping with similar institutions in the United Kingdom, Sweden and The Netherlands, although considerably smaller than the National Endowment for Democracy which is slated to receive the bulk of the Biden administration’s US$414 million Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal announced at the Summit for Democracy. 

It will be for the board and staff to set the initial direction, priorities and activities of the fledgling centre. With the modest resources potentially at play, taking on the full range of issues described in Minister Joly’s Mandate Letter will be a tall order. Choosing a few areas of demonstrable expertise will help focus the Centre’s activities. At issue here is balancing expertise across government and in Canadian civil society with international demand and burden sharing that minimizes duplication. There are globally engaged Canadian institutions in fields as diverse as federalism, pluralism, elections, the rule of law and municipal governance. Programmatic areas where the centre could help build and share Canadian expertise include strengthening digital democracy and cyber security, key issues in the struggle for open and plural societies; engaging political leaders at all levels by supporting political party assistance; defending human rights organizations; and facilitating dialogue and mediation in fragile or emerging democracies.

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The Summit for Democracy has brought to the forefront the Liberal government’s policy agenda a party platform promise to establish a well-resourced democracy support institution. It remains to be seen whether a minority government will have the political will and skill to make good on its plans.  There are difficult choices to be made about the proposed centre’s business model, focus and governance arrangements. Longevity is by no means certain. Canada’s record of fitful support for globally engaged institutions speaks to a lack of staying power at odds with our role in global alliance structures. An institution established with all party support, embedded in civil society, reporting to Parliament but with ministerial accountability is the best way to ensure that Canada’s proposed centre is durable and adds value to global efforts to strengthen democratic norms, movements, practices and institutions.      

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