As a sop to his evangelical base, Stephen Harper established the Office of Religious Freedom back in 2013. The tenure of its present Ambassador, Andrew Bennett, expires at the end of March. Bruce Ryder and Luka Ryder Bunting argue that, rather than replace Bennett, the Liberals should shut down the office.
The office is problematic for a number of reasons:
The international promotion of religious freedom by Western states risks repeating “civilizing” colonial missions, imposing fixed standards without sensitivity to cultural and historical specificities, adding to the already overburdened social salience of religious difference, and neglecting other sources of tension and conflict. The international promotion of religious freedom is a fraught project if it does not engage local populations appropriately or undermines plural and contextualized understandings of religious freedom across the globe. Canada must not assume that our model fits well with the experiences and needs of other states.
To make matters worse, the Harper government provided a stellar example of religious hypocrisy by
promoting religious freedom abroad while simultaneously undermining it at home, most blatantly in the case of the niqab. Moreover, by creating an office dedicated solely to the promotion of religious freedom, the Harper government appeared to attach more importance to religious freedom than it did to other human rights.
Ryder and Bunting believe that separating religious freedom from other human rights creates a human rights hierarchy:
There should be no hierarchy of human rights, no privileging of some over others. The promotion of religious freedom alone can lead us to see only part of people’s experiences, and can obscure other equally important issues. For example, women and children may be denied basic rights across an entire society, whether or not they are members of religious minorities. States may imprison individuals solely on the basis of their beliefs, religious or otherwise. Viewing complex and interwoven issues through the lens of a single human right will not produce adequate responses. Canada should take an expansive view and advocate for the protection of all human rights.
They suggest that the government establish a Human Rights Office which recognizes -- as Stephane Dion has said -- that human rights are "interdependent, universal and indivisible."