September 05, 2010

Harper government eroding democracy, human rights: Amnesty head By Harry Sterling,, September 5, 2010

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to a group of Conservative Party supporters at the Forties Community Centre in Forties, Nova Scotia, August 18, 2010.
Photograph by: Paul Darrow, Reuters

Opponents of Prime Minister Harper claim he is an ideologically driven authoritarian, intolerant of opinions contrary to his own and contemptuous of the traditional give-and-take of parliamentary democracy.

Although the jury may still be out on whether such views are well founded, an unexpected new critic of his government has entered the picture: Amnesty International, the world's leading defender of human rights.

And what Amnesty International's new secretary general has to say about the human rights approach of Harper's government is sobering for those who support such fundamental rights as freedom of opinion and respect for democratic principles.

Amnesty International's new leader, 49-year-old Salil Shetty, told delegates attending the Aug. 23 CIVICUS World Assembly meeting held in Montreal on citizen participation in society that his organization was worried about human rights in Canada.

Shetty stated: "Amnesty International is more and more concerned about the serious worsening of the human rights approach of this government."

"There is a real shrinking of democratic spaces in this country ... Many organizations have lost their funding for raising inconvenient questions." (A reference to the case of several Canadian NGOs which discovered their long-standing funding arrangements with the federal authorities terminated by the Harper government, including one NGO falsely accused by cabinet minister Jason Kenney of being anti-Semitic.)

Shetty also castigated the Harper government for its indifference towards the imprisonment and military trial in Guantanamo, Cuba, of Canadian-born Omar Khadr, who, when a fifteen-year-old youth was captured fighting for al-Qaida in Afghanistan by the Americans and accused of throwing a grenade which killed a U.S. soldier.

Shetty said Omar Khadr should never have been imprisoned and that his trial violated international law on child soldiers. He urged the government to seek Omar Khadr's release.

In press interviews, the new Amnesty leader said the Harper government's unwillingness to sign the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was a major disappointment. He suggested Canada used to be first in such things.

Shetty said Canada is now taking much more different positions on issues such as torture and the death penalty where it once was far more progressive.

In remarks last June at the founding of a new human rights oriented coalition, Voices-Voix, Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said: "It is vitally important that concrete steps be taken immediately to arrest this erosion. Canada's reputation as a human rights leader is on the line."

The new Voices-Voix coalition, comprised of various human rights groups, women's movements, aboriginal, labour, environmental, student, religious and development organizations, issued a "Raise Your Voices" declaration in June, calling upon the Harper government to respect the right to freedom of opinion and expression, act in accordance with Canada's democratic traditions and values, and be transparent.

The declaration states that "Since 2006 the Government of Canada has systematically undermined democratic institutions and practices, and has eroded the protection of free speech, and other fundamental human rights. It has deliberately set out to silence the voices of organizations or individuals who raise concerns about government policies or disagree with government positions."

Shetty's own comments about the government's policies on various human rights issues are remarkable for their bluntness, especially since in the past Amnesty's annual report on Canada normally was focused on relatively mild criticism of the plight of this country's indigenous people, particularly those on reservations lacking adequate living conditions and infrastructures. (In recent times, human rights organizations have also questioned the role of provincial human rights tribunes vis-a-vis freedom of speech.)

But describing the Canadian government of undermining democracy itself is an unprecedented action by any standard.

However, such blunt criticism is unlikely to be the last.

Shetty's own background will ensure that. For the past six years he has been Director of the United Nations Millenium program, gaining considerable global respect for his endeavours in that high priority issue. In addition, as the first Indian national to head Amnesty International, Shetty comes from a family of militants, both his father and mother active in India's human rights movement, the father arrested on several occasions for his activism.

According to Amnesty's new leader, "... the lesson I learnt was that the root of injustice is people who have captured power abusing it -- and holding those people to account is what Amnesty is all about."

And unlike those before him, Shetty apparently does not intend to limit Amnesty's major attention on solely political repression and such things as government-sanctioned torture but rather expand its role in other areas, including education, culture and the environment.

He wants to emphasize the indivisibility of all rights and to find new ways of connecting economic, social and cultural rights with civil and political rights. "The only way to address economic and climate injustice, caused by the reckless abuse of power and blatant violation of human rights by governments and corporations, is for ordinary people across the world to stand up for their rights."

Under Shetty's leadership Amnesty International seems set to be far more militant in promoting a broadened range of perceived human rights for ordinary people everywhere, including Canada.

Harry Sterling is a retired foreign service officer. He lives in Ottawa.
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

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