Cotler challenge would force Trudeau to match human rights talk with action

Posted on October 7, 2016 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
October 7, 2016.   National Post View

Over the years, UN human rights bodies have earned a reputation as comfortable resting places for some of the world’s most egregious abusers of human rights. The original UN Commission on Human Rights, created in 1946, was disbanded in 2006 after years of complaints about its membership, which at one point saw Sudan elected without contest, even as it was busily engaged in slaughtering up to 300,000 people in Darfur. The commission was replaced by the UN Human Rights Council, whose current members include Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba.

Irwin Cotler, the human rights lawyer and former Liberal justice minister, has noted the Liberal government’s much-professed determination to “re-engage” with the UN, and made a laudable suggestion: Canada should use its position to vote against the re-election of members with objectionable records, and publicly reveal its vote.

“People in these countries really see Canada as having the potential to be a leader in the promotion and protection of human rights, and [one that] can mobilize other fellow democracies,” Cotler said, echoing views expressed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Stephane Dion. “We should leverage our involvement in the various forums to exercise leadership.”

“People in these countries really see Canada as having the potential to be a leader in the promotion and protection of human rights, and [one that] can mobilize other fellow democracies”
Though it may sound highly reasonable, and wholly desirable, the proposal puts Trudeau in a difficult spot. Liberals made great hay of Trudeau’s recent address to the UN General Assembly, pointedly drawing a contrast to years of coolness under the Harper Conservatives. “We’re Canadian and we’re here to help,” he proudly declared. But Trudeau’s government is also eager to expand its relations with several of those countries known for abuse.

Trudeau only recently returned from China, where he discussed the possibility of a free trade agreement and invited China’s premier on a return visit to Ottawa. Dion has pointedly sought a thaw in relations with Moscow and this week declared it “eminently sensible” to be working with Russia in the Arctic. The Liberals have insisted they will complete a controversial sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, and Cuba has invited the Prime Minister to visit Cuba, where his parents were famously feted by Fidel Castro when Trudeau was a child.

It is unlikely the government would willingly complicate those relations. Votes on the human rights council are usually secret, allowing countries to cast negative ballots without embarrassment. Cotler’s proposal would force the Liberals to face up to the brave declarations they’ve made, putting a wrench in the delicate hypocrisies that are such a central part of international diplomacy.

That the four states have no place on any body tasked with promoting human rights goes without saying. The adoption of resolutions and statements calling on countries to end political repression or religious persecution can hardly be expected to carry any moral weight if they’re coming from member states that are behaving just as abominably, if not worse. Russia has established itself as Syria’s biggest ally as it kills thousands of civilians in its assault on forces opposed to the brutal rule of President Bashar Assad. China remains a corrupt one-party state where government opponents are routinely jailed and free speech remains a distant dream. Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest execution rates, routinely jails critics and denies basic rights to women. Cuba has only recently begun to curtail five decades of repression.

Does the Prime Minister or his foreign minister have the courage to back up their words with action? Denying a vote to countries that torture or arbitrarily arrest their citizens might not be enough to force a change, but would establish at least that Canada is not afraid to stand by its beliefs, and indicate that Trudeau is something more than just another posturing politician. A refusal would suggest he is more interested in the image-boosting effects of Canada’s campaign to win a spot on the UN Security Council than in the less glamorous, yet more meaningful, work of holding powerful countries to account for their lack of rule of law and due process.

Quizzed on Cotler’s proposal, Dion would say only that “Canada will announce its decision in due time.” As he considers that decision he might reflect on what Canada gains from re-engagement if its influence isn’t used to help spread the civil and political rights Canadians already enjoy to the citizens of repressive nations who lack them. Keeping the globe’s worst human rights offenders off a commission meant to police such offenses seem like a very good place to start.

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