Universal or selective human rights?

This week, the Prime Minister is in China to supposedly thaw relations he has been criticized for frosting since the years he was in opposition criticizing the government.

Stephen Harper, and indeed, a number of prominent Conservatives have, for years, roundly admonished China for its poor human rights record since the days of the Reform Party. For this, members of the opposition have suggested that the Conservatives firm stance against China has harmed our economic relationship with that country.

Among the Conservatives who have stood up against China is Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister of Citizenship and Immigration. My first exposure to Jason Kenney’s breadth of politics came in 2005 when he and members of the Alberta Conservative caucus held a pro-Tibet movie night at the Conservative Party Convention in Montreal. In January of that year, while on a parliamentary trip overseas, Kenney was criticized by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin for embarrassing the Chinese when he visited the home of pro-democracy reformer Zhao Ziyang.

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In the Afghan detainee transfer agreement signed by General Rick Hillier and the Afghanistan defence minister, an entente was struck to prevent human rights abuses. Among other important guarantees it declares, “No person transferred from the Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities will be subject to the application of the death penalty.” This is a strict yet progressive demand for the unstable government of an emerging democracy which in darker days used to slit the throats of thieves like sheep before a stadium of spectators in Kandahar province.

Last week China put a bullet in the back of the head of two company managers in the tainted milk scandal where six children died of contaminated milk. With an estimated 470 executions in 2008, China is believed to be the world’s leading executioner.

In Canada, some of our Liberal Parliamentarians have shown surprise over the past three weeks at allegations that some Afghans treat their fellow Afghans with callous disregard and fault Canadian officials for an uneasy balancing of coddling of a country reborn out of rubble going through the birth pangs of establishing a civil society, with the brutal hell of war against combatants that wear no uniform, splash acid in the faces of schoolchildren, and cut off the ears of those that would work to bring good governance to their country.

Meanwhile, Liberal observers have criticized the Conservatives for pushing human rights in China at the expense of trade. Liberals such as John McCallum describe the “broken Canada-China relation[ship] under the Conservative government” and Scott Brison who prematurely boasted that “the fact that Ignatieff is able to go to China as the leader of the opposition before the ruling party leader does is a clear indication of how good and solid relation[s] between the Liberals and China [are].” Ignatieff subsequently canceled his trip due to a pending fall election triggered by the Liberal leader himself.

This sentiment expressed by McCallum and Brison is not exclusive to the critics of the Liberal benches in the House of Commons. Rebukes of Stephen Harper’s tough stance on China’s abuses have also been echoed by former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien who complains that Canada used to be China’s “best friend”. Chretien bemoaned that comparatively, in the first three years that he was Prime Minister, the p’tit gars had visited China eight or nine times. Never mind the fact that Chretien started lobbying the Chinese government within weeks of stepping down as Canada’s twentieth Prime Minister.

According to Amnesty International, China is guilty of a number of human rights abuses,

Growing numbers of human rights activists were imprisoned, put under house arrest or surveillance, or harassed. Repression of minority groups, including Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians, continued. Falun Gong practitioners were at particularly high risk of torture and other ill-treatment in detention. Christians were persecuted for practising their religion outside state-sanctioned channels. Despite the reinstatement of Supreme People’s Court review of death penalty cases, the death penalty remained shrouded in secrecy and continued to be used extensively. Torture of detainees and prisoners remained prevalent. Millions of people had no access to justice and were forced to seek redress through an ineffective extra-legal petition system. Women and girls continued to suffer violence and discrimination.

Conservatives are usually criticized for dealing with issues in absolutes, in rights and wrongs, in black and white. Meanwhile Liberals sometimes suffer a charge of moral relativism from their opponents as they are accused of dealing in shades of grey. On their assessment of a nascent democracy suffering in horrific ravages of war, a country attempting to cast off ages of illiberalism and lawlessness, it is evident that Liberals have little sympathy for the harsh realities of an imperfect situation. Whereas on a country with an often brutal established dictatorial order, a country with a $4.3 Trillion GDP, and a country that actually bans human rights monitoring groups from operating within its borders, Liberals such as Bob Rae suggest:

“The Chinese are very concerned about stability, they’re very concerned about order. They’re very concerned about a billion people. They’re fearful of the consequences of losing that kind of control. Seems to me we just have to keep on trying to persuade them that liberty is the better way. It’s something we believe in and something we should share with them.” — Bob Rae

If you’re looking for Rae in the halls of Parliament these days, his tolerance seems selective and true concern seems focused elsewhere,

The opposition parties say it is not believable that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his senior ministers weren’t aware of Colvin’s troubling reports. If true, they could implicate Canada in the war crime of complicity in torture.

“The fact of the matter is that if there was ever at any time a view that there was a serious risk of people being mistreated, those prisoners should never have been transferred and such transfer is a breach of international law,” said Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae.

Torture is abhorrent and is a fundamental violation of human rights. I’m confident that most would agree that such a violation is terrible no matter where or against whom it occurs. Yet can we reasonably expect perfection from Afghans in an imperfect situation in their war-torn country while diminishing and invoking willful ignorance of the abuses by a modern, industrialized and enviably affluent state such as China?

The Afghan detainee document dump

1. December 18th agreement for the transfer of Afghan detainees between Gen. Rick Hillier and Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan Minister of Defence.

2. Gosselin Affidavit

3. Buck Affidavit

2. Affidavit from Richard Colvin to the Military Police Complaints Commission signed October 5th, 2009.

3. Richard Colvin email (KANDH-0029) not available.

4. Richard Colvin email (KANDH-0032) not available.

5. Richard Colvin email (KANDH-0039) obtained by Amnesty International.

6. Richard Colvin email (KANDH0074) obtained by Amnesty International.

7. Richard Colvin email (KANDH0082) obtained by Amnesty International.

8. Richard Colvin email (KANDH0125) obtained by Amnesty International.

9. Richard Colvin email (KANDH0138) obtained by Amnesty International.

10. Richard Colvin email (KGBR0291) obtained by Amnesty International.

11. Testimony of Richard Colvin before the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan, November 18th 2009.

12. Testimonies of Gen. (Ret) Rick Hillier, L.Gen Michel Gauthier and M.Gen David Fraser before the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan, November 25th 2009.

13. Testimony of Ambassador David Mulroney before the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan, November 26th 2009.

Notes:

– The Colvin email dates are redacted. At this time we do not know if the emails are dated prior to 2007 when abuses came to light.

– Canadian Forces don’t monitor Afghan prisons, CF relies upon civilian authorities to do this. Colvin’s emails went out on the C4 network. The military isn’t on the C4 network, from my understanding. Colvin asks C4 recipients to pass info up the military chain of command. Hillier asked why Colvin never raised concerns with him in person while he was there – was this a chain of command issue and not wanting to step outside his lane or something else?

– Some will argue that it was Graeme Smith’s reporting that “informed” Canadians of torture in Afghan prisons. This reporting isn’t official according to CF and would have been unproven at the time. Smith did have special perspective as he lived off base in downtown Kandahar.

– Did the Red Cross at any time tell the Canadian government that they were in a position to commit war crimes due to what the ICRC was observing in Afghan prisons where Canadian detainees were taken after 2007? This answer may already exist within the public realm but I haven’t seen it.

– The threshold of torture is quite uncomfortably put, another legitimate concern. While some abuses and conditions in Afghan prisoners may shock Canadians, Hillier suggested that a punch or a beating may sit on one side of the thin line as abuse, while electrocution, and fingernail ripping sits on the other as torture.

– The Buck affidavit explains Canada’s role in establishing human rights in Afghanistan while describing the difficulties of establishing a Canadian prison in a sovereign Afghanistan. War is not a perfect process nor a practice undertaken with clinical precision. Colvin and others have conflicting accounts of Canada’s efforts to do everything within reason to respond to reports of abuse.

– Torture is far too serious a screw up in counterinsurgency whether violence is more common in Afghan culture or not. Although it is relevant to recognize that this was Afghan on Afghan – sovereign nation in its own prisons on its own citizens. This of course, doesn’t make it right at all, but it doesn’t make it Canadians torturing Afghans.

– If you believe other documents may be useful to supplement this collection, please suggest them in the comments.

Louise Arbour commits to eradicating “Zionism”?

Jason Kenney responds, see update

Louise Arbour responds, see update

Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has voiced her support of the Pan-Arab human rights charter, which among other things, commits to “rejecting all forms of racism and Zionism.” Critics have argued that rejecting “all forms” of Zionism is in effect an effort to delegitimize the state of Israel.

Arab Charter of Human Rights:

The Canadian government rejected sending delegates to a UN Conference against racism because it argues that the conference paradoxically promotes racism in the form of anti-antisemitism, questioning the validity of an Israeli state and because of the postering of conference walls with Hitler imagery by invited NGOs and activists protesting Israel at the original “anti-racism” UN conference in the fall of 2001.

Arbour is out of step with Amnesty International which has stated:

The draft Charter includes provisions rejecting Zionism as”a violation of human rights and threat to international peace and security”(preamble and article 2 (c)). Amnesty International believes that states and non-state entities should be held accountable for human rights violations under international human rights standards. For this to be done, Amnesty International believes that the reference should be international human rights standards rather than focussing on a particular ideology or ideologies.– Amnesty International

Furthermore, the International Commission of Jurists has expressed its view on the Arab Charter:

The ICJ invites the authors of the Arab Charter to remove the condemnation of Zionism in the preamble and in its article 1 in order to devote the Charter exclusively to protection of human rights in the Arab region, without digressions of a political nature liable to obscure the Charter’s basic purpose.– International Commission of Jurists

As a member state of the UN, Arbour is seen to represent Canada at that organization. As Canadians, we stand for human rights and ought to reject the language of the Arab Charter and its support by the UN High Commissioner Louise Arbour.

UPDATE: Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity Jason Kenney has written a letter to Arbour and calls her statements troubling and asks for her to clarify her remarks.

UPDATE: Arbour clarifies her support for the Arab Charter:

To the extent that (the charter) equates Zionism with racism, we reiterated that (it) is not in conformity with (the 1991) General Assembly resolution, which rejects that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination … OHCHR does not endorse these inconsistencies. We continue to work with all stakeholders in the region to ensure the implementation of universal human rights norms. — Louise Arbour

Held without charge? Some context.

The House of Commons is set to vote today on the extension of two provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act. The ATA was brought in under the Liberals after 9/11 and two specific provisions of the act are being challenged today in the House of Commons by that same party.

They are:

  • investigative hearings of material witnesses

  • the ability to hold terror suspects without charge for 72 hours

I wanted to know how other countries handle the second issue in particular so I did a bit of research. Here’s how other countries deal with the detention of terror suspects:

Europe
France can hold terror suspects for 72 hours without access to a lawyer. Terror suspects can be held for up to four years (!) before being tried by a court.

Germany can hold terror suspects for 48 hours without seeing a judge.

In Greece, terror suspects can be held without charge for up to 12-18 months.

Italy can legally hold suspects for 24 hours without access to a lawyer.

Norway can hold terror suspects for 48 hours.

Spain can hold a terror suspect and prevent access to a lawyer for 72 hours in standard cases and up to 13 days for non-standard ones.

In the UK, terror suspects can be held without charge for up to twenty eight days but judicial knowledge of detention must occur within 48 hours.

North America
In Canada, terror suspects can be held without charge for 72 hours. Judicial knowledge of detention must also occur within 72 hours.

In the US, terror suspects can be held without charge for 6 months.

Australia
In Australia, the secret service can detain terror suspects for one week without charge.

I called Amnesty International to get their take on the situation. They told me:

“It’s important to see this within the context of our own procedures. The measures aren’t needed. There must be a balance between security and human rights. Existing criminal code provisions are already in place, so the ATA provisions are unnecessary. The government hasn’t demonstrated a need for these provisions.” — John Tackaberry, Amnesty International

Despite this, Canada is, comparatively, on the softer end of the spectrum when it comes to the detention of terror suspects without charge. Suspects are held without charge in order to further investigations in progress; once a suspect is charged, investigators lose access to the suspect as a resource.