And it won’t stop there.
Journalists have asked variations of these questions for decades, grasping for some way to ensure politicians aren’t abandoning principle as they try to build ties to countries, such as China, with a record of high-profile human rights abuses.
Either way, reporters often find the answer to “the human rights question” wildly unsatisfying. The answer is inevitably some variation of “Yes, of course,” without much sense of the intensity or efficacy of the discussion.
So, what really happens behind closed doors?
“People think we should just have our minister or the prime minister pound on the desk and make it clear. That’s very satisfying for about two minutes and then you realize the door is shut and there’s no further possibility.”
Most progress happens over the medium to long term, said Mulroney, who is now president of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. When you’re dealing with individual cases, like trying to secure the release of someone who has been imprisoned, Mulroney suggests it can require some creativity.
He points to one case he worked on, where a Canadian woman’s Chinese husband was imprisoned and likely being beaten up. Mulroney wanted to help but felt that because the man wasn’t a Canadian citizen, if officials brought up the case directly, China would tell them to butt out.
Instead, Mulroney said he opted for a “softer and more friendly” approach.
Canada’s health minister at the time, Leona Aglukkaq, was visiting China. He suggested she raise the case with her Chinese counterpart by framing it as a question of whether the man needed medical attention. Mulroney also advised her to wait until the two were talking privately, on their way to lunch.
“I said … ‘Just say, “Look, I don’t want to deflect us from our conversation about health issues, but I did want to raise this case and ask if you would be so kind as to investigate it as a physician.”‘ And we actually did find out that the person did ask about the case.”
He said eventually the man was released. Mulroney believes that conversation helped make it happen.
“Change does not come because of outside pressure,” said Gar Pardy, who was also ambassador to several countries. “We do this kind of thing to make ourselves, I think, feel good when we say these things to another government.”
He also believes that change is more likely to happen away from higher profile meetings like prime ministerial visits.
“The possibility of re-establishing that kind of annual dialogue with the Chinese, I think, would be much more effective rather than an occasional visit with the minister or prime minister, which in effect [is] ‘Did you raise human rights?’ ‘Yes, I raised human rights.'”