Time for a human-rights reboot

OttawaCitizen.com – Opinion/Op-Ed
December 29, 2013.   By Alex Neve And Béatrice Vaugrante, Ottawa Citizen

Amid the outpouring of emotion that swept the world following Nelson Mandela’s death, a disconsolate Canadian debate played out. Why didn’t Canada have a prominent role in paying homage to one of history’s most towering champions of human rights?

It is an unfortunate question worth pondering, and a deepening problem that needs remedying.

People recalled the strong stand against apartheid taken by Canadian leaders going back to John Diefenbaker. They boasted that Mandela was granted honorary Canadian citizenship. They asked why Brian Mulroney, who stood up against Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, wasn’t one of the many world leaders invited to speak at Nelson Mandela’s memorial.

There are many answers to that question. One is undoubtedly this: Canada is no longer revered as that unwavering human rights leader of 25 years past. In fact, when it comes to championing human rights in Africa, Canada has become almost absent.

Amnesty International, other organizations, former diplomats and politicians, and concerned Canadians have been pointing to this decline in Canada’s human rights stature for several years. Moments such as being left out of the Mandela memorial, or the 2010 loss in a bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, force us to face the music.

Canada’s human rights shortcomings multiply, both domestically and internationally.

This past year offered a tremendous opportunity to turn that around, when the UN Human Rights Council conducted its Universal Periodic Review of Canada. Every country in the world is reviewed every four years.

But Canada came out of the review more bullish than exemplary; more defiant than determined. In fact we rejected two recommendations that attracted considerable support from many of our closest allies. Canada refused to develop a national action plan to address the scandalous level of violence that haunts the lives of indigenous women across the country.

Canada also rebuffed calls to sign a treaty dealing with torture prevention and prison visits, hampering our ability to press other countries, where torture is commonplace, to take that crucial step.

We end the year, in fact, with domestic human rights concerns worsening on a number of key fronts.

There is still no commitment to respecting the right of indigenous peoples to give free, prior and informed consent to natural resource projects impacting on their rights, lands and territories.

The federal government’s refusal to fund health care equally for all refugees has been lambasted by provincial governments; many of whom will pay the bill but send the tab to Ottawa.

Ottawa refuses to develop an effective human rights framework for Canadian mining companies operating abroad and does not seriously incorporate human rights obligations into trade policy.

The government inconsistently goes to bat for Canadians who find themselves unlawfully imprisoned or at risk of torture in foreign lands, leading to concerns about discrimination.

The federal government’s refusal to lead the development of national strategies for poverty, food security and homelessness defies understanding.

And there is unprecedented concern that freedom of expression is increasingly undermined. Mass arrests at the Toronto G20 Summit and the Quebec student protests have still not been adequately examined.

Across the country, activists, bureaucrats, academics and scientists lose their funding, or are muzzled or publicly vilified when they criticize the government.

The sea change in Canada’s human rights standing on the world stage over the past several years has been staggering. Once a leader, Canada is far too often now seen as a laggard.

From having led the world in the campaign for a landmines treaty just over 15 years ago; Canada was nowhere to be seen in this year’s remarkable adoption of a new treaty that brings human rights rules to the global arms trade. Canada is not among the 115 countries that have taken the first step of signing the treaty.

Canada’s refusal to promote internationally agreed commitments with respect to women’s sexual and reproductive rights is undermining our once stellar record as a champion of women’s equality.

As the plight of Syrian refugees becomes an ever greater disgrace, Canada has made a miserly pledge to accept 200 Syrians to Canada through government sponsorship. It is a betrayal of decades of generosity to refugees.

Inconsistency undercuts much of Canada’s human rights diplomacy. There are forceful, welcome positions on countries such as Sri Lanka and Iran. But the refusal to countenance any criticism of Israel’s human rights record has many countries seeing Canada as polarizing rather than principled. Our virtual disappearance from Africa, failure to push hard on Colombia, and ambiguous positions with respect to some “Arab Spring” countries, such as Bahrain, does nothing to garner increased international respect.

Late in the year the government proudly announced that with a new Global Markets Action Plan, economic diplomacy will now dominate Canadian foreign policy. There is nothing wrong with good trade promotion. But it is lamentable that there is no accompanying International Human Rights Action Plan. That would be an admirable, in fact necessary, companion.

When it comes to human rights, Canada is increasingly out of the game and off the stage — at home, at the UN, and in Johannesburg. Time for a reboot in 2014.

Alex Neve is the secretary general of the anglophone branch of Amnesty International Canada and Béatrice Vaugrante is the director general of the francophone branch of Amnesty International Canada.

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