Freer trade with Indonesia? Really?

Canada stalks the globe today, trying to ink trade pacts with pretty much any government it isn’t trying to overthrow (no comprehensive economic partnership for you, Venezuela). They go by a dizzying list of euphemisms. But it’s all trade. Trade first.

Indonesia seems an odd trade target. Canadian governments for decades have talked about closer ties to the giant of Southeast Asia, but never achieved them. And while Ottawa vows to promote LGBTQ+ rights and environmental stewardship, both are under attack in Indonesia today. Gay men are subjected to punishment by whipping, while longtime activists for the rights of sexual minorities point to a worsening rights climate and increasing attacks by the national government. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s environmental protection is deteriorating as land defenders — with women in the forefront — struggle to stop pandemic-linked land grabbing.

Current conflicts harken back to the days when Canada sought close ties to Indonesia even as it carried out a genocidal occupation of East Timor (now independent as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste). Then, Canadian business was in the driver’s seat, with enthusiastic governments from both major political parties trying to grease the trade wheels. But Canadian activists worked to stop those deals, and ultimately succeeded (I tell the story in a new book).

Today’s Indonesia has an elected government and a thriving civil society. Yet it’s hardly an exemplar for human rights. While Canada’s government has much to say about the Rohingya in Myanmar, and now about the coup in that country, it has happily endorsed Indonesian rule over the Indigenous Peoples of West Papua and accepts the continued role of the Indonesian army in key government positions.

The latest trade foray is a proposed comprehensive economic partnership agreement with Indonesia. “Indonesia is the largest export market for Canada in Southeast Asia and a key destination for Canadian investment in the region,” notes Global Affairs Canada. “Bilateral merchandise trade reached a total value of $3.7 billion in 2019. Indonesia is also the second-largest destination for Canadian direct investment in the region, which totalled a value of $3.84 billion at the end of 2019.”

The rhetoric of rising trade echoes that of the 1990s, when Indonesia was pictured in Canada as an emerging tiger economy, and thus human rights were buried.

Indonesia soared in the Canadian development aid rankings under Pierre Trudeau and his Liberals. Before Trudeau, Indonesia had received less than 1 per cent of Canadian aid. By the time Trudeau retired, it ranked number two among Canadian aid recipients. Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives hailed “congruent interests” with Indonesia as Joe Clark, then foreign minister, embarked on a campaign of genocide denial, declaring falsely that systemic human rights violations were not happening in East Timor. While slashing aid around the world, Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government pushed hard for more trade with Indonesia, issuing more than $300 million in arms export permits in a single year. The Chrétien Liberals pleaded with then-president Suharto to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 1997. Suharto insisted on a guarantee that he would not be confronted with protesters. It took the RCMP pepper-spraying protesters at the University of British Columbia for Canada to keep that promise.

Trade alone should not steer foreign relations. Trade alone should not steer foreign relations. People-to-people ties have always mattered more in Canada-Indonesia relations.

When pro-democracy protests sparked the downfall of the Suharto regime in 1998, East Timor regained its independence and Indonesia became an electoral democracy. Over two decades, Canadian foreign ministers have spoken of closer ties, but never done much. A bilateral human rights dialogue fell into neglect. A Bilateral Consultative Forum announced in 2012 yielded nothing concrete. Canada ended its bilateral aid program in East Timor, and abandoned early calls to hold Indonesian generals accountable for crimes against humanity.

Only trade remained.

Yet trade alone does not a relationship make. Canada will be better understood if it honestly and consistently advocates for human rights, including LGBTQ+ rights, religious freedoms, and improved treatment of Indigenous Peoples in West Papua and elsewhere. At the same time, Canada should accept Indigenous rights clauses when signing trade agreements.

What might a more complete Canada-Indonesia relationship, one that talks about more than money, look like? Here are a few components worth considering:

  • LGBTQ+ rights. If Canada is to have the “feminist foreign policy” long promised by Justin Trudeau, it should make trade conditional on the rights of members of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression minorities (SOGIE, to use the Southeast Asian term). Indonesia is home to quite a few pluralistic, liberal thinkers on Islam. It was there that transnational activists developed the 2006 Yogyakarta Principles on sexual orientation and gender identity. Those principles should be advanced alongside any trade deals.
  • Religious freedom and religious dialogue. When Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, first visited Canada in 1956, he spoke at McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies about freedom of religion. This is a real concern today, as followers of Islam in Indonesia are divided, with some holding progressive views, and others following conservative apostles of intolerance like the Islamic Defenders’ Front. Once, McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies helped build resources for the more liberal perspective within Indonesian Islam. When Canada’s government abandoned this emphasis, it left the field clear to preachers of violence and intolerance.
  • Indigenous rights. Indonesia’s Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago) has much in common with Indigenous land defenders here. The Pacific Peoples’ Partnership, based in Victoria B.C., has worked for many years on Indigenous Peoples’ linkages across the Pacific. Both countries must agree to live up to their commitments under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples not to build resource extraction projects and infrastructure without free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples.
  • Truth and reconciliation. An Indonesian-Timorese joint truth commission concluded that Indonesian soldiers and officials were responsible for crimes against humanity. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded that residential schools for Indigenous Peoples were a form of ‘‘cultural genocide.’’ Neither country has done much to implement their truth commission’s calls to action. When talking trade, it’s worth talking truth — and reparations — at the same time.
  • Forest preservation. Trade without environmental protection, in the long run, impoverishes everyone. Indonesian rainforests have been heavily degraded in recent years, with West Papua’s forests among the last remaining large stands of forest cover. Canada, too, must pledge to protect its boreal forests. Without clauses on forest preservation, a trade partnership is likely to lead to more mining, more logging, and more destruction.
  • Mining. Despite promises, Justin Trudeau’s government has failed to put in place binding rules on the many Canadian mining companies operating overseas, including in Indonesia, to stop them from violating human rights. Indonesia should insist that Canadian companies respect human rights, because rights promotion flows both ways.
  • West Papua. The Papuan peoples consider themselves to be distinct from Indonesia, with inalienable Indigenous rights. Despite Indonesian democratization, mass arrests of Papuan activists continue. Rising anti-Papuan racism echoes racism on this side of the ocean, with Papuans dismissed as “monkeys” or worse. Resistance is rising, embodied in a “Papuan Lives Matter” movement.

Trade alone should not steer foreign relations. People-to-people ties have always mattered more in Canada-Indonesia relations. They offer a more effective option for deepening Canada-Indonesia — and Canada-Asia — ties than does a government-driven, top-down policy blown by trade winds.

Comments on the proposed Canada-Indonesia comprehensive economic partnership can be made until Feb. 23, 2021, at

David Webster is a professor of history at Bishop’s University. In 2015, he accepted the order of Timor-Leste on behalf of Canada’s East Timor Alert Network.