OTTAWA — The Harper government has eroded Canada’s global reputation as a human rights champion, says a respected international watchdog.
The scathing report by Amnesty International does not specifically name the Harper Conservatives but it raises many frequent criticisms of Tory foreign policy.
Those criticisms include uncompromising support for Israel in the Middle East and the defunding of non-governmental agencies, such as Kairos, that have publicly criticized the Tories or provided aid to Palestinians.
Amnesty calls on party leaders to use the federal election campaign to restore Canada’s commitment to rights at home and abroad.
“No longer the champion, more and more Canada is perceived to be a country that is reticent to take a consistently strong stand for human rights. Sometimes Canada now is also seen as part of the problem, not the solution,” said Amnesty Secretary General Salil Shetty.
“There has been erosion of Canada’s past policies, including a principled and non-partisan reputation in the Middle East.”
The report says the government’s “unflinching refusal” to criticize Israel’s human rights record has eroded Canada’s reputation in the Middle East.
“Serious violations committed by the Israeli government have on occasion been described as ’a measured response’ and Canada’s voice was noticeably moderate when hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils faced grave peril in early 2009,” the report said.
Harper used the phrase “measured response” in July 2006 to describe Israel’s decision to bomb Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah terrorists based in that country.
That comment provoked the ire of Arab and Muslim Canadians and was widely interpreted as a sign the Conservatives had begun taking sides the Middle East conflict.
“Traditionally Canada approached those debates in a careful and principled manner and garnered a reputation as non-partisan,” the report states.
“That reputation has, however, been completely eroded in recent years as Canada has now adopted a policy of consistently voting against resolutions at both the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly that criticize Israel’s human rights record,” it adds.
“That has been the case even in the midst of UN criticism of the widespread human rights violations that occurred during the Israeli military campaigns in south Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.”
The government has defended its Middle East stance, saying it believes a non-violent end to the dispute and the creation of a separate Palestinian state that would live peacefully with its Israeli neighbour.
The Conservatives had been given advance notice of some of the report’s contents but did not reply.
At home, the report points to “devastating cuts” in funding to Canadian agencies such as Kairos and the Canadian Council for International Co-operation for publicly disagreeing with government policy.
“On the home front, Canada’s human rights movement feels under siege,” the report states.
“Never before have Canadian organizations worried so much that there might be consequences if they disagree publicly with the government on a human rights concern.”
The report also notes the government’s decision to not repatriate Toronto-born convicted terrorist Omar Khadr from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
But the report also offers criticism in areas where the Conservatives and Liberals have been aligned on foreign policy in recent years.
It criticizes the defeat in Parliament last fall of a bill that would have created mandatory accountability for Canadian corporations abroad. The bill died with the support of several high-profile Liberal opposition members.
The report also criticizes the “fluctuations and unevenness” in Canada’s relations with China over the last 20 years that have lead to an inconsistent approach in raising human rights concerns with its communist leaders.
Between 1993 and 2005, the Liberal governments of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin faced accusations that they were more interested in pursuing trade with China than pushing a rights agenda.
“Our critique certainly is based on the actions of the government in the last few years,” said Shetty.
“If you look at the history of various governments in this country and the way they have responded to international human rights requirements, I think it’s a mixed bag. We’ve had Liberal governments that haven’t delivered, we’ve had Conservative governments that haven’t delivered.”