If Canada defends human rights, what about Palestine?

Ameera Es-Sabar discusses the concept of silent violence in the context of Canada, drawing parallels between Canada’s exclusionary approaches towards its Indigenous inhabitants and its (lack of) response to ongoing events in Palestine and Israel. By highlighting similarities in Canada’s approaches towards Indigenous peoples both at home and abroad, and its contrasting responses to events in Ukraine and Palestine, she exposes Canada’s silent violence and complicity in national and international state violence. 

“Defending human rights and democracy has always been, and will continue to be, a priority for Canada – both here at home and around the world….[W]e reaffirm our commitment to building a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of who they are or where they live.” – Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau

Canada’s complicity in national and international state violence contradicts Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s proclaimed commitment to human rights. The Canadian government contributes to state violence with impunity through its portrayal of Canada as benevolent, multicultural, and human-rights-oriented. Thus, Canada inflicts silent violence, which I define as a subtle form of violence that is not initially perceptible and that requires a deeper critiquing of so-called state benevolence, which consists of a perceived tolerance towards and inclusion of diverse “others” who are supposedly welcomed into the nation-state with open arms, irrespective of difference. This subtle violence works by putting forward narratives of inclusion while simultaneously excluding “others” at home — and being complicit in the exclusion of “others” abroad — who do not conform to Western modes of living and thinking, including Indigenous communities, who are often the targets of harmful state-imposed policies. 

Silent violence consists of two dimensions in the context of Canada. Firstly, the contradiction of Canada’s claims towards protecting human rights, evidenced through the infliction of colonial and capitalist violence onto its Indigenous inhabitants. Secondly, Canada’s proclaimed commitment to a “universal” framework of Human Rights, which detracts attention away from the state’s (complicity in) human rights abuses at home and abroad, including its silent acceptance of Israel’s apartheid against Palestine. 

Canada’s infliction of colonial and capitalist violence

Canada’s official narrative is that “[t]he promotion and protection of human rights is an integral part of Canadian efforts” and that it “promote[s] the rights of indigenous peoples in Canada and abroad,” with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) as a main reference. Yet, Canada is a settler colonial state that continually inflicts violence on Indigenous communities, seen through tactics of repression and domination. For example, in 2018, the British Columbia Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an injunction that prevented land defenders from blocking the construction of a pipeline within Wet’suwet’en land, eventually leading to the forced removal and arrest of Wet’suwet’en land defenders on their territory. 

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples urges states to “consult and cooperate in good faith” with Indigenous Peoples to get their “free,” “prior” and “informed consent.” Yet, Canada fails to do so, reflecting what Heather Dorries et al. describe in their article, “Racial capitalism and the production of settler colonial cities,” as “racial capitalism and its differential valuing of lives,” as Indigenous communities are perceived as expendable and their land is deemed exploitable for settlers to profit off of. In turn, Indigenous peoples in Canada remain the targets of capitalist accumulation, while liberal notions of equality and inclusivity in decision-making pertain only to White/Westernised subjects of the state and are not universal guarantees for all.   

Canada’s proclaimed commitment to  “universal” Human Rights 

Canada’s ratification of international legal mechanisms like the UNDHR are necessary gestures that illustrate a commitment towards the protection of human rights; yet this should not be the basis upon which we critique Canada’s human rights approach. Instead, we must look at its practice of human rights and the circumstances upon which Canada mobilises human rights rhetoric. Although Canada denounces certain human rights abuses, it prioritises a particular kind of human rights: that of the Westernised, White, capitalist Human Rights regime. This is evident when analysing Canada’s reaction to the war in Ukraine compared to its response to the ongoing violence in Palestine and Israel. 

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Canada condemned President Vladimir Putin, affirming its “unwavering” support for Ukraine. However, while Canada has announced that it will provide funding for humanitarian aid in Palestine, it has not explicitly condemned the actions of the Israeli government. These actions include apartheid against Palestine, which is “a grave violation of internationally protected human rights” and “a crime against humanity under international law.” 

In her book, Gender, Alterity and Human Rights: Freedom in a Fishbowl, Ratna Kapur argues that human rights are intertwined with political liberalism, an ideology propagating freedom yet producing unfreedom. Canada places itself within what Kapur calls a “liberal fishbowl,” where “universal” human rights are Westernised and applied to select groups. This selective universalism is evident when we compare Canada’s (lack of) response to violence in Palestine against its reaction to the war in Ukraine, highlighting how silent violence is often inflicted onto racialised communities and is context dependent. This limited “universalism” upholds what Charles Mills refers to in his book Black Rights/White Wrongs as a racial contract, privileging White/Western supremacy at the expense of marginalised “others.” 

A racial contract exists between Israel and Canada, shaped by systemic racism, which Mills suggests is embedded within Western-style liberal democracies. As Abigail B. Bakan and Yasmeen Abu-Laban state in their article, “The Israel/Palestine Racial Contract,” this contract “assign[s] a common interest between Israel and its powerful allies,” while “absenting the Palestinians as non-white, the subjects of extreme repression, and stateless.” In turn, Palestinians are posited as “individuals devoid of history” and “rights as Indigenous people,” according to Nahla Abdo in her article, “The Palestine Exception.” 

In 2021, two of the top destinations for Canada’s arms exports were Ukraine and Israel, with Canada exporting $54,922,825.58 and $26,092,288.99 worth of military goods and technology, respectively.  In the same year, Israel launched an offensive attack on Occupied Gaza, wounding more than 1,900 people. Therefore, while presenting itself as “pro-human rights” — evidenced in Ukraine — Canada contradicts its commitment to Indigenous rights and the protection of all peoples by failing to condemn Israel’s apartheid. Thus, Canada silently accepts — and even actively supports through its arms sales — state-inflicted violence against Palestine. 

Canada’s acceptance of Israeli apartheid parallels its own exploitation of and disregard for Indigenous communities. How is Canada supposed to advocate on behalf of Indigenous communities abroad who are forcefully displaced due to colonial violence and systemic racism, if Canada itself has not meaningfully acknowledged its identity as a colonial state that inflicts violence onto its Indigenous inhabitants? 


Canada inflicts silent violence by hiding behind the veil of “universal” Human Rights, while simultaneously contradicting its claims towards protecting human rights through its (in)actions. Canada’s international policies and (in)actions are a mirror image of its domestic approaches. Thus, Canada’s alliance with Israel reflects its own dispossession and exploitation of Indigenous communities. In turn, Canada’s commitment to human rights is based on an exclusionary definition of the “human” — a White/Westernised, bourgeois figure situated within a liberal Western framework — hidden behind the rhetoric of “multiculturalism” and “inclusion.” This urges us to consider who we perceive as worthy of defending, and consequently, who we view as worthy of life. Until Canada meaningfully acknowledges its identity as a settler colonial state, it will be unable to address the wrongdoings of states abroad; meanwhile, by refusing to condemn Israeli apartheid, Canada engages in silent violence, accepting the exclusion and extermination of Palestinians, while propagating narratives of state benevolence. If Canada truly defends human rights, then what about Palestine?

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of LSE Human Rights, the Department of Sociology or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Jack Farrar

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