Dion urged to challenge countries with poor rights records on UN panel

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion is being urged to challenge the membership of rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela on the controversial United Nations Human Rights Council.

OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion is being urged to challenge the membership of rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela on the controversial United Nations Human Rights Council.

Dion is in Geneva on Monday as the council convenes to mark its 10th anniversary, a milestone that some critics say is shrouded in ignominy.

The 47-member council has several members that have poor human rights records — a list that also includes China, Russia, Vietnam, Algeria, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Panama.

The non-governmental organization UN Watch urged Dion to get tough on the council, noting Canada could specifically target Venezuela in particular for condemnation because it is not as influential as China or Russia.

Dion recently announced a $15-million contribution to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and said Canada wants to re-engage with it as part of the Liberal government’s broader embrace of the UN.

UN Watch director Hillel Neuer said he hopes Dion continues the tough stand of the previous Conservative government against the council.

“The bottom line is if Canada holds the abusers to account and engages in a meaningful way and tries to lead, that will be a good thing,” Neuer said in an interview.

He noted that the previous Liberal government of Paul Martin voted against Libya’s election in 2003 as the president of the council’s predecessor, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, because of the shoddy rights record of its president, Moammar Gadhafi.

“That’s moral leadership. It’s not a Conservative issue or a Liberal issue,” said Neuer.

Canada recognizes the shortcomings of the council, but also believes the only way to improve it is by engaging it directly, said Joseph Pickerill, a spokesman for Dion.

“The idea that, ‘If it’s not what we want or isn’t perfect, we pull out,’ has been a mistake and hasn’t advanced Canada’s foreign policy interests,” Pickerill said.

“Our role is to raise the level of debate, defend our values, protect our friends and allies and chart a better course for human rights everywhere. You can’t do that from the outside.”

The previous Conservative government was highly critical of the council because it provided a forum for dictatorial regimes to criticize Canada and also allowed Arab countries to pursue anti-Israeli resolutions.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement said the government should be engaging with countries that have poor human rights records, but Dion should be cautious not to confer any sense of legitimacy on them.

The council “has had controversy in the past because the people that tend to head its committees have some of worst human rights records on the planet,” Clement said.

Neuer said that although it is not a member of the council, Canada could still try to put forth a motion as an observer state, and he suggested targeting Venezuela because, “we know how powerful the Chinese and Russians are,” while the government of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas is struggling.

The Human Rights Council replaced the Human Rights Commission in 2006, which faced similiar criticism, but little has changed, said Neuer.

He said his organization analyzed the membership of the two rights bodies over the last 15 years and found that 62 per cent of the countries that served were dictatorships or authoritarian regimes.

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