MONTREAL — Irwin Cotler, the Liberal critic for justice and human rights, has deplored the federal government’s decision to disband the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, better known as Rights and Democracy.
The Montreal-based non-partisan organization, established by Parliament in 1988 during the Mulroney era, has never fully recovered from the crisis within its ranks that came to light more than two years ago.
Differing views on the Arab-Israeli conflict between certain members of the board of directors, notably its chair, University of Toronto professor Aurel Braun, and president Rémy Beauregard and other staff was at the heart of the dispute, the House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs and international development concluded in its report on the affair released in June 2010.
Beauregard died of a heart attack the night after a particularly acrimonious board meeting in January 2010. Braun objected to a staff proposal to give grants totalling $30,000 to three non-governmental organizations – two of them Palestinian and one Israeli – to monitor human rights in the aftermath of the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza in 2008-2009.
Braun, who was appointed chair by the Harper government in 2009, believed these NGOs were anti-Israel and possibly linked to terrorism.
Other government board appointees had become the majority on the 13-member body by the time the internal battle reached a head. Rights and Democracy was supposed to have an arm’s-length relationship with the government of the day.
“By closing down this important organization, a creature of Parliament and responsible to Parliament, the Harper government peremptorily undermines Canada’s standing as a leader in international human rights, and our capacity for the promotion and protection of democracy around the world,” said Cotler, who served as the organization’s acting chair in the 1990s.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced April 3 that the government would soon introduce legislation to terminate funding of Rights and Democracy. It depends on Ottawa for about 80 per cent of its budget, which was $11 million last year.
Baird said the cutback was part of the government’s effort to “find efficiencies and savings” in its budget. The Foreign Affairs and International Trade Department and the Canadian International Development Agency will assume the functions performed by Rights and Democracy, he said.
The March budget did not specifically mention Rights and Democracy, but it does speak of the government’s intention to “examine its participation in some international organizations to ensure that they are relevant to Canada’s interests and priorities.”
Cotler commented, “A budget is more than a financial statement. It is a statement of values. By doing away with a group like Rights and Democracy in budget 2012, this government demonstrates that the cause of international human rights is simply not among its priorities…
“It is troubling, indeed shocking, that the government did not even deign to propose an alternative mechanism for defending human rights and democracy worldwide.”
The New Democratic Party also condemned the shutting down of Rights and Democracy. Foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière said that having its functions taken over by the foreign affairs department is not the right course, because the department is “increasingly politicized by this government” and does not have the resources to assume additional responsibilities.
“Conservative mismanagement ruined this once-respected organization,” she said.
The House of Commons committee, which held hearings on the matter in 2010, had recommended that the board of Rights and Democracy be dismissed and that before they go, they apologize to the family of the late Beauregard for “any statements damaging his reputation.” That did not happen.
Rights and Democracy was one of three Canadian organizations cited as problematic with regard to Israel by Canadian-born Bar-Ilan University professor and CJN columnist Gerald Steinberg on his NGO Monitor website. The other two, Kairos and Alternatives, lost their federal government funding in the past couple of years.