Defending Canada’s Human Rights and Rule of Law Legacy

2013 will see the UN and many countries around the world celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It should also be the year that we celebrate a Canadian law professor, John Humphrey, who as head of the UN Human Rights Division collaborated with Eleanor Roosevelt to produce the blueprint that would result in what was termed by the former First Lady as the “Magna Carta of the world”. Canada was not the most enthusiastic proponent of the Declaration, having abstained from voting for it at the committee stage. However, after it was adopted, the legacy of generations of Canadians and successive government was Canada’s global image as a human rights and rule of law champion domestically and around the world.

That legacy allowed Canada to punch above its weight in the international community. It led to such historic accomplishments as the Nobel Peace Prize for Peacekeeping; the Ottawa Land Mines Treaty, pioneered by Lloyd Axworthy; a Conservative Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, leading the fight against Apartheid and leading in the creation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the creation of the G20 by former Prime Minister Paul Martin; the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien and  Minister Lloyd Axworthy, and shepherded through the UN 2005 World Summit by former Canadian Ambassador Allan Rock; and a Canadian diplomat, Philippe Kirsch, being instrumental in the creation of the International Criminal Court, and serving as first presiding judge on the Court.

A great legacy built over several generations of Canadians and governments of all political stripes must not be lost in such a short time, and mostly during the period of just one government.

As we enter this 65th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration, Canada’s human rights and rule of law legacy is fast diminishing, in part because the world is getting to know how the present government undermines those values at home. The record includes:

1. Failure to protect and complicity in abusing the rights of Canadian Omar Khadr, who was captured as a 15 year-old child soldier and imprisoned without due process of law at Guantanamo; Canada’s complicity in unlawful interrogation of Khadr and stalling on the transfer to Canada

2.  Public Security Minister Vic Toews issuing directives to Canadian authorities that they can rely on information obtained by Canada or foreign agencies derived from torture, and share such information with other states; interests in protecting life and property are supposed to justify this gross violation of the Convention Against Torture, to which Canada is legally bound

3. Failure to take effective action against widespread violence against indigenous women and girls, with over 600 women and girls missing or found murdered

4.  Denial and avoidance of any accountability for the transfer of Afghan detainees by Canadian military officials into the custody of Afghan officials, who are universally acknowledged to engage in torture in violation of international humanitarian law; the government’s efforts to prevent the Military Police Complaints Commission and a Parliamentary Committee from searching for evidence of knowledge of the serious risk of torture at the highest levels of the Canadian government

5. Introduction of draconian refugee legislation (Bill C-31) whose review, detention and discriminatory treatment of those arriving by irregular means is likely to be a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the UN Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which  Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney championed)

6. Ideologically-motivated funding cuts and threatening of charitable status to organizations thought to be  advocating protection of the human rights of Palestinians(KAIROS), women’s rights (Sisters in Spirit, Planned Parenthood),  progressive international development organizations (Canadian Council on International Cooperation), environmentalism (Suzuki Foundation), and those advocating on behalf of communities adversely affected by global operations of Canadian companies in the extractive sector (Mennonite Central Committee); and the stacking of the human rights NGO Rights & Democracy with preferred Board Members, throwing  the organization into chaos, and then shutting it down

7. At the G8/G20 Summit in Toronto/Huntsville, allowing opposition to and uncertainty about funding aspects dealing with family planning and access to abortion to overshadow progressive measures on maternal and child health; the ill-treatment and unprecedented mass arrests of over 1,000 people by police forces

8. Failure to establish an effective mechanism or oversight body to monitor serious allegations of complicity in human rights abuses by Canadian extractive industries operating in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America

9. Implementation of the Cluster Munitions Treaty, which allows loopholes for joint military operations with non-state parties, under which Canadian forces on secondment could direct, authorize or even use  cluster munitions (thus undermining Canada’s ability to live up to core objectives of the Ottawa Land Mines Convention)

10. Downplaying of, and refusal to build on, other landmark Canadian human rights legacies of Canada, including the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the peacekeeping legacy of Canada’s military

Where the Harper conservatives do attempt to show the world their support of the promotion of human rights and the rule of law, it is almost always an instrumentalist strategy to reinforce electoral and other narrow and wedge political objectives.  John Baird’s railing against the UN and Iran, and the government’s staunch support of Israel (which perplexes even moderate Israelis) are examples of this instrumentalist approach to foreign policy.  Perhaps the worst example is the government’s half-hearted attempt to establish the Office of Religious Freedom; while its mandate and structure is still unknown, it faces allegations of favoring certain religious groups.

A great legacy built over several generations of Canadians and governments of all political stripes must not be lost in such a short time, and mostly during the period of just one government.

This essay is a summary of a presentation  given to the December 10th 2012 Human Rights Day celebration and panel organized by Human Rights Watch and the Law Society of Upper Canada.

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