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Diplomatic Language Changes: Semantics or Policy Shift?

August 6, 2009

There has been a story brewing for a while about seemingly subtle changes that have been appearing in the language of Canada’s foreign affairs documents and memos. These changes have not been generated by members of our diplomatic corps, but have in fact been the result of political directives from ministry staffers.

The changes seem minor at first glance. Terms like “gender equality” and “child soldiers” are to be replaced with “equality of men and women” and “children in armed conflict”. “International humanitarian law” is now simply “international law”, and the phrases “good governance,” “public diplomacy”, “human security” and “Responsibility to Protect” are to be stricken altogether.

Of course, diplomacy is all about language. Precise language. Language that has legal and political implications. And so this seemingly arbitrary attempt to change the language used by our diplomats and foreign service workers is being met with resistance.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon insists that “it is up to the departments to execute the policies that the Canadian population supported and acknowledged by putting this government in place.” The problem is, there hasn’t actually been any public statement or debate in parliament or DFAIT position paper developed or any official communication to the international community that Canada will, for example, be retreating from our condemnation of the use of child soldiers, or standing against the notion of Responsibility to Protect.

The latter policy is a perfect example of why language is so important in these cases. ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) was originally adopted by the UN in 2005 as a way to hold states responsible for protecting their own citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, etc. The policy is currently being debated and re-evaluated at the United Nations, a move instigated by their new president Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann. Several nations are beginning to question the implications of R2P on foreign policy and are trying to devise ways to prevent it from being used as an excuse for the larger powers to meddle or invade.

It’s a complex and nuanced issue, and the current UN debates underscore the necessity for Canada to craft well thought-out foreign policy positions that truly represent who we are as a nation. Instead, it appears that our government would prefer to make these complex issues disappear by simply hitting the ‘delete’ button, for reasons that seem to have more to do with political ideology than sound foreign policy.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    August 10, 2009 2:14 pm

    Great post – I had no idea this was happening. Language is important, as you say, and it’s a shame that the Harper government is embarking on such a major overhaul with little public discussion.

    With that said, my own contribution to any such discussion would probably be an endorsement.of the more substantive changes. I always did think that the language emanating from Chretien’s governments, when it came to foreign policy, was too idealistic and too full of annoying, trendy-sounding jargon. (If we’re going to have an R2P, perhaps we should also have an R2D2 – a responsibility to defend, too.)

    I think “gender equality” and “equality of men and women” are pretty close to equivalent, although the former is snappier and perhaps more inclusive of transsexuals and hermaphrodites. “Children in armed conflict” seems needlessly convoluted compared to “child soldiers”, although one might quibble that a child can be damaged through involvement in an armed conflict without being an actual soldier. Again, perhaps it’s all right to err on the side of inclusion.

    I don’t see why “international humanitarian law” should be more important than any other kind of “international law”, and I don’t even know what “public diplomacy” means. “Good governance”, on the other hand, seems like a perfectly serviceable term, even if it had become a bit loaded with unspoken assumptions that good governance meant Western-style governance. “Human security”, and the dreaded “responsibility to protect”, are little better than sanctimonious excuses for riding roughshod over the sovereignty of other nations in order to impose our own sensibilities. In my opinion we’re better off without them.

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