Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Canada's silence is shame

UN watchdog says Canada too often silent as human rights trampled

Canada votes at the United Nations to uphold international human rights but rarely speaks out against the worst global bullies, says a new report.

It's just one aspect of a review by UN Watch that casts the renewed UN Human Rights Council as badly, if not fatally, flawed.

The non-government group says Canada in 2006-07 spoke out against abuses by just six of the 19 most repressive regimes in the world.

At the UN General Assembly, Canada "led the resolution that held Iran to account for its policies of torture, arbitrary arrest and repression," Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, told a news conference Monday.

"Canada also joined other democracies in citing major abuses in Belarus, Burma and North Korea, and in supporting the failed attempt to censure Uzbekistan."

But Canada's silence at the UN Human Rights Council was deafening in other cases, Neuer said.

"Canada took no action whatsoever ... against China's violations of civil, political and religious rights - which harm over a sixth of the world's population. Canada was equally silent regarding Fidel Castro's police state, where journalists languish in jail for daring to speak the truth.

"It said nothing about Saudi Arabia's refusal to allow women to vote or drive a car, or its state-sponsored schoolbooks that teach children to hate Christians and other non-Muslims."

What's worse is that Canada, even with this dubious record, is among the top performers at the new UN Human Rights Council, Neuer said.

It doesn't help that almost half of the 47 member countries, including Cuba, are serious offenders who tend to protect each other from criticism.

"It's very distressing," Neuer said. "The founding of the council was hailed as the dawning of a new era, but the reality is that a great many non-democracies were elected."

The UN General Assembly voted last March to create the new human rights body after the credibility of its predecessor, the 53-member Commission on Human Rights, took an international pounding.

Among low points was the election in 2003 of Libya, a notorious thug on the human-rights stage, as chair of the body. That unseemly scenario was the result of a regional rotation scheme - one of many procedural glitches decried by outraged human rights advocates who increasingly called the commission toothless.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan himself conceded: "Unless we remake our human rights machinery, we may be unable to renew public confidence in the United Nations itself."

The reconstituted council was to include only members who "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" and be subject to review. Countries had to be approved by a majority of the 191 members of the UN General Assembly.

It turned out to be a poor filter. Initial members of the new council included China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Pakistan.

Such so-called "abuser states" are now collectively "fighting tooth and nail" in Geneva to water down periodic reviews and other mechanisms that might rebalance a skewed process, Neuer says.

The council has so far come up with just 10 resolutions addressing specific countries: eight condemnations of Israel and two comparatively soft knocks on Sudan.

"It's a very depressing time," Neuer says. "At the same time, it's an opportunity for democracies to stand up and fight for what's right."

Neuer called on Canada to forge stronger ties with European and other member countries to hold China, Saudi Arabia and other offenders accountable.

He conceded that the council is a highly partisan process, and that there's a political price for speaking out.

"But I do not accept that, and I think victims around the world cannot accept that as an answer."

Conservative MP James Lunney, who responded to the report on behalf of the government, said Canada can "play a very significant role in addressing these concerns.

"We're moving in that direction ... but of course we need a lot of wisdom in advancing in that area."

Ottawa has raised concerns about China's human rights record in other contexts, Lunney added, most recently in the case of a Canadian citizen being detained there without access to consular staff.

As for the UN process: "Let's just say it's very complicated because of the composition of member states and the intrinsic partisan nature of many of the players."

That's no excuse for not at least speaking out, said New Democrat MP Pat Martin.

"Even though the report says Canada is voting the right way, silence is shame."