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PM defends trade talks with Ukraine despite Kiev's strong-arm tactics

Stephen Harper arrived Sunday to a Ukraine of diminishing freedoms and rising strong-arm tactics. And yet the Canadian government is working to sign a free-trade deal with the regime.

The Prime Minister landed in Kiev from the meeting in Switzerland of La Francophonie, the 70 nations with links to the French language and culture. That group's final communiqué stressed the importance of protecting human rights and the rule of law no fewer than three times, even though many of its governments are either undemocratic or corrupt or both.

How does this Conservative government square the contradiction of seeking business deals with countries whose governments exhibit varying degrees of unsavouryness, while taking a principled stand on human rights?

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The answer, according to the Prime Minister, is to deny the contradiction exists.

The question assumes "that there is an inherent tension between these two issues, between wanting to do business and raising issues of human rights and the rule of law," he told a reporter Sunday when asked how he juggled the two subjects in conversations with leaders.

"And I will not deny that sometimes there is tension. But in fact these go hand in hand."

That tension may enter the room when Mr. Harper meets with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose government has tightened its grip since its election in February - even as negotiations proceed on a trade agreement with Canada. An early sign of an agreement is the deal to be signed this week that allows young people to work, study and travel more easily between both countries.

On the first leg of his European trip, the most tangible product of Mr. Harper's time at La Francophonie was announcing a new $43-million commitment to aid for francophone African countries. But that organization has a reputation for glossing over questions of rights and freedoms simply because there is little of either in so many member countries. Switzerland volunteered to play host to the this year's gathering of La Francophonie after a last-minute coup in Madagascar, the original host, forced a change of venue.

The next gathering, in 2012, is to be held in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a desperately poor nation that is emerging uncertainly from a civil war that, at its height, was killing 45,000 people a month.

Thirty of the 70 member states are designated either Not Free or only Partly Free by the human-rights watchdog Freedom House.

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Yet Africa is increasingly attracting investment, with growth rates well above that of the developed world. And Ukraine is also doing better this year, thanks in part to the relative calm that Mr. Yanukovych has imposed on the tumultuous state.

That calm has been imposed by cracking down on freedom of the press and blatantly trying to undermine opposition parties.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based organization that monitors press freedom around the world, downgraded Ukraine in its latest annual ranking from 89th to 131st.

Mr. Harper, whose government is still smarting from the unexpected failure on Oct. 12 to win a seat on the UN Security Council, maintains that he has no difficulty having free and frank exchanges with leaders who don't like to hear hard truths.

"We raise [human rights issues]frankly with them," he said. "I tend by nature to be fairly direct and that's what I am in these conversations."

Mr. Harper is scheduled to meet with Mr. Yanukovych, but he has also arranged to meet with rival politician Yulia Tymoshenko during his two-day visit.

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In a twist on the human-rights-or-business dichotomy, the Prime Minister said he talked about human rights with world leaders in countries where they were lacking because without them, Canadian businesses wouldn't be able to thrive.

Mr. Harper's argument is simple: impartial courts, freedom of the press and dignity of the person are good for both parties in a contract.

"Canadian companies … need rule of law and human rights," he said. "Where those things are problematic they create severe problems for Canadian business."

Companies, he argued, need reliable and enforceable laws to conduct business, and worry about the impact of consorting with oppressive regimes on "their own self-image."

Of course, Canadian businesses have been operating in countries with unpleasant regimes for many a year. Each prime minister has balanced the two sides of the rights-versus-business conversation his own way. Mr. Harper started out emphatically emphasizing rights, only to learn to his sorrow that countries like China do not like to be lectured to or to be cold-shouldered.

The dichotomy will become increasingly difficult as the century evolves - and as waning democracies court and confront rising powers.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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