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What should the NDP’s foreign policy platform look like?

A former party staffer and adviser on why the party’s foreign policy must be built on solidarity.

By: /
21 August, 2021
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the New Democratic Party’s 115-page 2021 electoral platform, one and a half pages are dedicated to Canadian foreign policy.

While foreign policy watchers might be surprised at this brevity, it is actually a prudent decision to keep this section of their platform short, as Canada’s other major parties also do. Foreign policy is not a ballot box issue in Canada. Canadians certainly care about Canada’s place in the world, but most Canadians do not cast their vote on foreign policy. 

A caveat: while a party’s foreign policy usually doesn’t earn votes, it can certainly cost votes. The wrong words uttered about a controversial issue (on, say, China, Israel/Palestine, Iran, or Venezuela) could make any party leader look unprepared to take on the role of prime minister, or could cause a candidate to get dropped by their party. Parties need to anticipate and prepare for potential foreign policy landmines on the campaign trail. Those landmines, however, don’t generally need to be addressed in a platform. 

As a recent conversation on the Herle Burly podcast illustrated so well, platforms are political and communications documents — not in-depth policy conversations. A good foreign policy section is best focused on values and broad lines of what a party would do if it forms government. It doesn’t need to get into the nitty-gritty of policy or use buzzwords. Plain, clear language and accessible messaging are key. Moreover, no party can predict the future; a party’s principles indicate how it would respond to emerging crises, such as those we are seeing today in Lebanon and Afghanistan.

The NDP’s 2021 foreign policy platform does this well. Framed in respect for human rights, multilateralism and supporting global peace and justice, the platform includes language about improving global health, promoting the rights of women and girls, securing access to girls’ education, increasing climate financing for developing nations, recommitting to peacekeeping and supporting nuclear disarmament. These are all longstanding positions of the NDP and should come as no surprise. Moreover, the 2021 platform is nearly identical to the 2019 platform. That’s to be expected when an election is called so soon after the last one, especially when the intervening period has been dominated by a global pandemic. There are, however, a few surprises in this year’s platform worth examining. 

First, on China: The party’s platform comes down hard on Chinese human rights abuses and says a New Democrat government will “work with our allies to lead a robust and coordinated international response to China’s disregard of the rule of law.” This is the first time in recent years that the NDP has specifically mentioned China in its electoral platform, and I think it’s a smart choice: Canada-China relations will likely be the top foreign policy issue of this campaign, as Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor remain in Chinese custody and the Meng Wanzhou affair continues. 

Every party needs to show a strong position on this issue and be ready to respond to questions on the fly and as the situation evolves. Stating clearly in the platform that the NDP “will stand up to China with a strong and coherent strategy to defend Canadian interests” is a position that most Canadians will appreciate, even if details are scarce.

Also new this year is mention of the COVID-19 pandemic. The NDP platform highlights the need to strengthen international assistance to help with the COVID crisis, crucial at a time when the virus threatens the most vulnerable around the world. It supports the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Waiver (TRIPS) “that would waive intellectual property rights for COVID vaccines and ensure technology transfer, so that low-income countries can start making vaccines locally and save lives.” These are good promises that reflect Canada’s role in the global fight against COVID.

Another noticeable addition is a change in language on Israel/Palestine. Israel/Palestine has been a tricky issue for the NDP for many years; in my experience, it is the most challenging foreign policy issue for a critic or staffer to navigate, given intense interest from stakeholder groups, party members and some members of the public.

The adoption by NDP party membership of a “Palestine Resolution” at its recent federal policy convention was significant. The resolution, which built on existing NDP policy in support of a two-state solution and playing a constructive role in advancing peace, commits the party to fighting for “an end to Canada’s support for illegal settlements” and “suspending the flow of weapons to and from Israel until Palestinians are free.”

That new language on arms sales made it into the platform, which will likely be welcome news both to the activists who worked hard to change the policy and to voters who care about the human rights of Palestinians. Furthermore, as we witness the implosion of the Green Party of Canada, partly due to their poor handling of the Israel/Palestine issue, it will be interesting to see if Green Party supporters who care about Palestinian human rights shift their vote towards the NDP this election.

The platform also notes an NDP government would “make sure that Canadian-made weapons are not fuelling conflict and human rights abuses abroad,” though it makes no specific mention of the controversial $15-billion contract for light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is a difficult issue for the NDP because the LAVs are built in the NDP-held riding of London-Fanshawe. 

Under Jagmeet Singh’s leadership, the NDP has been more vocal about cancelling the contract with Saudi Arabia. Just this month, a new report from NGOs Project Ploughshares and Amnesty International Canada contradicted many of the government’s claims about the use of the LAVs and Canada’s commitment to the Arms Trade Treaty. It is good, then, to see this promise in the NDP platform — and it marks a stark contrast with the Liberals, whose stated commitments to human rights and to a feminist foreign policy are easily refuted by their refusal to cancel arms export permits to Saudi Arabia. 

A solid foreign policy platform should always meet the needs of key stakeholders. To that end, Canada’s international development community should be pleased to see the NDP reaffirm its promise to increase international assistance to the UN target of 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income — something the Liberals refuse to do. Canada’s official development assistance sits at only 0.31 per cent due to decades of underfunding by Liberal and Conservative governments. 

The NDP platform doesn’t specify a timeline to reach 0.7 per cent, and I think that’s smart. It’s not politically wise to promise such a large increase over a first term. While recent polling shows a majority of Canadians would support an increase in international assistance, it is hard to see how any government would have the public support to make that financial leap over only four years. True, other countries have done it — but it would take strong leadership, and likely an NDP majority, to do it here. 

“While the platform does what it needs to do, it lacks inspiration. I would have liked to see a few new bold and ambitious ideas included.”

While the platform does what it needs to do, it lacks inspiration. I would have liked to see a few new bold and ambitious ideas included.

First, on peacebuilding and conflict prevention: Canadian party platforms tend to put too much emphasis on peacekeeping and not enough on building and sustaining peace. As a middle power and a pluralist society, Canada should position itself as the “go-to” nation for assistance in leading negotiations, strengthening democracy and promoting inclusive peacebuilding. 

I would like to see the NDP build on an idea former NDP MPs Paul Dewar and Hélène Laverdière worked on as foreign affairs critics: establish an international hub of expertise and assistance on peacebuilding, conflict prevention, resolution and post-conflict reconciliation in Ottawa. With appropriate funding, a peace institute could bring together Canada’s top experts on peace and conflict and harness the knowledge and experience we have in spades. 

The United States Institute of Peace is a potential model. Established by the U.S. Congress in 1984, USIP is an independent institution devoted to the nonviolent prevention and mitigation of deadly conflict abroad.

The establishment of such a centre would be a first step toward correcting the serious errors made by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2012 when they abruptly closed the internationally respected, Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (Rights & Democracy) and presided over the closing of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. 

It’s an idea that other parties might support, too. The 2019 Liberal platform included a commitment to establish a Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government that would “lend expertise and help to people seeking to build peace, advance justice, promote human rights and democracy, and deliver good governance.” This was a welcome promise from the Liberals, but I have yet to see any real movement toward this in the two years since the last election. 

The NDP platform should also have nurtured cross-party consensus on issues like sanctions and human rights violations. Canada’s Magnitsky Law is an important tool that former NDP MP Hélène Laverdière worked across party lines to support. The NDP already supports the application of Magnitsky sanctions against the world’s worst human rights violators, including Saudi and Chinese officials. An NDP government should also increase transparency on decision-making processes related to sanctions, especially since we don’t know why the Liberals have chosen to sanction some human rights violators but not others. This is not in the NDP platform, but it should be.

One of the best foreign policy decisions this Liberal government made was to commit $300 million to the Equality Fund to support women’s rights organizations in developing countries. I would have liked to see the NDP build on this by promising new and significant financial and technical support to other grassroots organizations working to create healthier societies, including LGBTQI2S+ activists, environmental defenders, labour movements, Indigenous leaders and youth peacebuilders. These folks are at the front lines of holding their governments to account and are too often targeted for their activism. The NDP is the only political party in Canada to hold solidarity as one of its core values, and its foreign policy platform should better reflect that. 

I like to say that no one knows what will happen once an election campaign is under way. Polls are one thing, but campaigns can turn on a dime. In 2015, New Democrats were confident going into the election that this was our time — and we all know how that worked out. Platforms only go so far in influencing voters. But while electoral platforms are designed to communicate a party’s values and vision for government, it’s important to remember they can also be useful for setting agendas for parties in opposition after election day. 

In 2015, the Liberal Party platform did not mention feminism or women in its section on foreign policy, while the NDP’s foreign policy platform included strong language on women’s rights and a particular focus on the women, peace and security agenda. Following the 2015 election, NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière secured a parliamentary committee study on women, peace and security that inspired the Liberal government to strengthen its commitment to that agenda — eventually leading to the creation of the position of Canadian ambassador for women, peace and security and increased funding. This was a good choice by the Liberals but one that might not have happened had the NDP not pushed hard on the issue within Parliament. 

Whoever wins this election, let’s hope the government will look at all the platforms and take the best ideas forward. And if it is the Liberals, as the polls predict, I hope they remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. 

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