Monday, September 14, 2009

Everyone knows that governments lie, and one of the ways that they lie is by attempting to control the way things are referred to. The most famous example of this sort of thing is, of course, the phrase "collateral damage" which refers to the reality of "civilians killed". Examples are endless, and our dearly beloved federal Conservative government is one of the masters of this practice. Here's a little article from the Harper Index, a website devoted to keeping a close eye on the machinations of Sneaky Stevie and his band of unmerry men. Go on over and have a look.
Language change foisted on diplomatic corps:
Humanitarian concerns conflict with Conservative frame, minister dares staff to challenge him.
OTTAWA, September 10, 2009, The Harper government has instructed diplomatic staff to adopt politically-approved language and rhetoric on international human rights and diplomacy and demanded they not use expressions that contradict the Conservative world view.

This summer, the Canadian news publication Embassy received a leaked copy of language guidelines issued to foreign affairs staff.

"Among the changes identified are the excising of the word 'humanitarian' from each reference to 'international humanitarian law,' replacing the term 'gender equality' with 'equality of men and women', switching focus from justice for victims of sexual violence to prevention of sexual violence, and replacing the phrase 'child soldiers' with 'children in armed conflict,'" the magazine reported.

The story resulted in a minor controversy most Canadians missed over the summer, with the government at first denying that the changes are meaningful then, later, admitting that they are deliberate acts of policy.

"I've told my people that this is the policy that we carry out and if anybody is not happy with these policies that we're carrying out, well all they have to do is go and run in the next election and get themselves elected and support a policy that is different from ours," foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon told Embassy. He said "... we're going to be changing policies so that they reflect what Canada's values are and what Canadians said when they supported us during the last election. That's the role of government, that's the role of an elected official."

The changes, while seemingly minor in some cases, could have a profound impact on Canadian foreign policy. "There are people who don't like Canada to be a leading humanitarian. There are people who think that's revolting," Desmond Morton, a historian and former director of McGill University's Institute for the Study of Canada, told CBC's The Current. Many believe the shift away from the term "child soldier" is intended to protect the government from charges it is mishandling the Omar Khadr case.

General Roméo Dallaire, who started the Child Soldiers Initiative, called the semantic shift "an instrument of camouflage".

Human rights experts such as Alex Neve of Amnesty International were astounded at the implications of the language edicts. "International humanitarian law is referred to...because the legal obligations that are at stake are from that particular area of law, which is an incredibly important area of law, it's essentially the law that governs in the midst of war," Neve told Embassy.

Another example is that the minister's office has removed the words "impunity" and "justice" from calls for an end to sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The approved language now refers only to "preventing" sexual violence.

Harper Conservative vs. Public Values Frame
Excising of the word "humanitarian" / Humanitarian
Gender equality / Equality of men and women
Justice for victims of sexual violence / Prevention of sexual violence
Children in armed conflict / Child soldiers
Harper Index ( is a project of the Golden Lake Institute and the online publication

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