Human rights and conflict resolution have been the two underlying themes in Shelley Whiting’s career, which has included assignments in the former Yugoslavia, Thailand, Laos and Burma, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and now Sri Lanka, where she is Canada’s High Commissioner.
“Supporting human rights has been the most rewarding aspect of my career,” she says. “As a lawyer I worked on strengthening the international legal framework, and then saw its application in the field.” Whiting was posted in both Kandahar and in Kabul during a very intense period, when she faced some of the most difficult human rights issues on a daily basis, and her values and principles were constantly being challenged. But Whiting points to the wins: “When I see how we have contributed to even small improvements in the situation for women in Afghanistan, or how Canada helped strengthen the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, I feel incredibly proud.”
On her first assignment, Whiting left Bosnia under gunfire in 1993, and then returned as Ambassador in 2004. “I worked hand in hand with the Canadian Forces who were still there keeping a fragile peace, and it was like coming full circle to be part of the team that helped oversee the Bosnian elections,” she says.
Whiting continues to work on human rights issues in Sri Lanka. “We still work with governments through traditional diplomacy, but today we are constantly reaching out to new partners – to the private sector, to foundations, the NGOs – they are all involved.” She uses the example of advancing LGBT rights in Sri Lanka. “It is not a concept that enjoys much support here,” she says, “so we use influential figures from Canada or within Sri Lanka as advocates and we try to find subtle ways of advancing Canadian values that are non-confrontational and don’t put communities at greater risk.”
Finding the right balance between taking a clear position on issues of principle and working behind the scenes for change can be difficult, but diplomacy is the art of the possible and real change almost always comes from within a society, rather than being imposed by others.
Phil Calvert has spent much of his 30-year career expanding Canada’s ties with China, and he sees his time studying Chinese language and history at UBC as the catalyst for what has become a lifelong passion. “When I arrived in Beijing in 1983, I was one of just a few Western diplomats who spoke the language,” he says. “That gave me the opportunity to travel to places others couldn’t. I was able to connect with ordinary people in a way that gave me a very different appreciation for the country.
“When I look back over the years I am proud of being able to introduce people to Asia, especially China, and to help them understand the complexities of the country. This meant debunking some stereotypes, both good and bad. I do feel that I made a difference in building understanding, brick by brick, as it were. Here the language training, and the understanding of the country and its culture, all of which started at UBC, was what allowed me to understand people, to smooth over communications issues, and to help people to adopt the polite, respectful, pragmatic tough-mindedness one needs in dealing with China.”
Like others, Calvert sees his work on human rights as one of the most enduring and rewarding aspects of his career, whether pressing local officials to improve conditions in orphanages or meeting with well-known dissidents, some of whom – even after years of mistreatment and imprisonment – remain profoundly spiritual, patriotic, and even optimistic about the future. “It is so important to show that we support the efforts of the human rights advocates and monitor their treatment. We also do a lot of work on minority rights, using Canada as an example,” says Calvert. “It isn’t about imposing our perspective, but opening up a discussion about how you can protect language rights, or indigenous rights, or any other human rights within a larger framework.”
Calvert thrives on the unpredictability of his work. He recalls waking up to find that a group of North Koreans had jumped the Embassy walls and then spending weeks negotiating their safe passage with the authorities. And the time he was asked to lead the dancing around a bonfire to celebrate Tibetan New Year at a regional university. Today, as Canada’s Ambassador to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, Calvert follows political developments, supports Canadian companies entering the market, and delivers Canadian assistance – for example, in the clean-up of the thousands of cluster bombs left behind in Laos.
Calvert says that contacts with Canadian universities are important. “There are lots of opportunities for collaboration, whether it is using research to strengthen policy, or using our alumni networks to strengthen ties and promote Canadian values.” Canada’s academic institutions are an important partner in diplomacy, but there are opportunities to do even more.
Robin Wettlaufer typifies the next generation of Foreign Service Officers and a new kind of diplomacy that focuses on new partners and approaches. From Cairo, where she learnt Arabic, to Islamabad to Ramallah, followed by a stint working on the Darfur Peace Process, to her current assignment as Canada’s representative to the Syrian Opposition, Wettlaufer has spent her career specialising in conflict, security, and combatting radicalization.
Unlike the traditional diplomacy of demarches and negotiations between governments, Wettlaufer is really charting new ground. “The goals are the same – advancing peace and stability and Canadian values,” she says, “but the approach focuses on the grass roots, and the progress is often incremental and long term.”
Wettlaufer underlines the unpredictability of diplomacy and the need to adapt to the circumstances. “This is especially true in places where the situation can change overnight. My work has been bringing rebel groups together, promoting cooperation and negotiation, talking to the opposition, to youth, to religious leaders, and finding ways to strengthen the voices of democracy and moderation.”
Wettlaufer recalls her outreach to madrassas in Pakistan, institutions that represented a very conservative school of theology. She doesn’t downplay the difficulties of working in this environment but did not feel dismissed on account of her gender. “Despite the fact that I was young and a woman I was able to have a very frank dialogue with them, to explain Canadian values and to dispel some myths about what we were trying to do,” she says. “I think they didn’t really see me as a woman, but as a representative of Canada and they respected that.”
Today, Wettlaufer is exploring new kinds of diplomacy, representing Canada to the Syrian Opposition. “We connect in many different ways with the Opposition, the whole host of parties opposed to the Assad regime, including through social media. Our objective is to expand our networks, to understand the different dynamics, to amplify the voices of democracy, to promote respect for minorities and human rights in general, and to help set the stage for a new Syria when the time comes to move from what is a terrible human catastrophe to reconstruction. We may not be able to change the situation on the ground, but by meeting and working with extraordinary individuals who believe in a better future, we can help harness those energies and help them to do right by their country.”
As for her time at UBC, Wettlaufer recalls being part of a large and diverse student body where you had to take charge of your own agenda. “It was really up to you, what you got out of your experience, and that was good training for the Foreign Service.” Her study of International Relations proved useful; “It wasn’t so much the specific issues, but the frame of reference,” she says. “My studies provided a strong foundation for understanding power and influence.” And that, after all, is what international relations are all about.
Richard Bale has spent most of his career working as a Trade Commissioner in emerging markets, including five years in Russia and the former Soviet Union and, apart from an assignment in Sweden, the remainder in Asia. Today, he is Canada’s Consul General in Mumbai.
“It is in emerging markets and complicated economies where the Trade Commissioner Service can really make a difference for Canadian companies,” he says. “We can help identify opportunities, especially for smaller companies that don’t have the resources to be on the ground, and we can trouble shoot when they run up against bureaucracy, political interference or questionable practices.”
Like others, Bale believes that understanding the environment, the culture, and using a network of political and commercial contacts can be so important, especially in new or emerging markets, or in countries where politics play a greater role in the economy than they do in North America.
Bale says that diplomacy involves a certain amount of theatre, especially in countries where the culture of the bazaar still rules. He recalls a mining mission to one of the newly independent countries in Central Asia, where a Canadian company was having trouble gaining access to a market largely closed to foreigners. Usually a mild mannered person, Bale had to work up a kind of righteous indignation. “I was pretty theatrical, but it was the only way to be taken seriously in a society where this was expected,” he said. He advised companies on how to operate in this kind of environment, what they should expect, and how to deal with some of the local customs that were part and parcel of doing business at that time.
Bale spends a lot of time promoting collaboration and partnerships in education in his current job. “The connections between Canada and India are strong,” he says. Canada has a good reputation and there are real opportunities for cooperation on student recruitment, research partnerships, innovation and other academic cooperation, especially in fields like management studies and engineering.
Even though Bale’s career has focussed on commercial relations, he says that promoting Canadian values, whether in business or more broadly – for example on strengthening democracy or improving the situation of girls and women – is still a central part of what diplomats do. “This is so important, because it contributes to Canada’s reputation abroad. People will often go out of their way to work with or help Canadians. It is acknowledgement of what Canada is as a society,” he says.