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Amnesty International says Canada no longer leads on human rights

Canada has lost its standing as a world leader in pressing for human rights, in part by taking a one-sided view on Middle East rights issues, Amnesty International says.

That judgment, according to Amnesty's global secretary-general Salil Shetty, is the cumulative effect of several moves in recent years, including a reluctance to sign new UN rights declarations, avoiding accountability for the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, and a failure to stand up for the rights of Canadians accused abroad, such as Omar Khadr, the Canadian detained in Guantanamo Bay.

The report marks a shift: Groups like Amnesty, which once viewed Canada as a paragon of their rights agenda, pushing initiatives like an international criminal court and protections for child soldiers, now see it as lacklustre.

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"Globally, Canada's reputation as a reliable human-rights champion has dropped precipitously," Amnesty concluded.

Among other things, Canada's shift in the Middle East has included "unflinching refusal" to raise concerns about Israel's rights records, and the government has stifled or defunded agencies that "promote the rights of Palestinians," it said.

And Mr. Shetty said that shift led Canada to "dither" in supporting Egypt's pro-democracy movement, out of concern that the departure of Hosni Mubarak could lead to a government less friendly to Israel. "I think it certainly blurred their thinking," he said.

The Conservatives have taken the position that there has been excessive criticism at the UN and elsewhere of the rights record of Israel, a democracy surrounded by repressive neighbours. But Mr. Shetty said Canada has lost the reputation for evenhandedness because it refuses to take Israel to task.

"Nobody's saying that therefore we should not be critical of Iran or other places as the Canadian government is," he said. "Amnesty is very critical of the human-rights record of Saudi Arabia, of Iran, of all the people who are very vocally against Israel. But we should call a spade a spade."

Although Amnesty insists it doesn't take partisan sides, most of the steps criticized in the report came under Stephen Harper's Conservative government - with the notable exception of the long-standing criticism of Canada's failure to shrink the gap in standard of living between aboriginal Canadians and most citizens. The Conservative campaign did not comment.

Fen Hampson, a foreign policy analyst at Carleton University, said Canada's approach on human rights has shifted. While the Liberal government in the 1990s pushed a "humanitarian" concept of human rights, like the international criminal court and human security, the Tories consciously dropped that agenda and focused on criticizing autocratic regimes like Iran.

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Canada's shift on the Middle East has changed the country's reputation and affected its failed campaign for the UN Security Council last year. But Mr. Harper would argue that's a principled stand, "and they're prepared to take their licks," Mr. Hampson said. Amnesty is exaggerating Canada's global loss of reputation, he said, but at least until the Libya mission it wasn't seen in recent years as a leader on human security issues.

In any event, reports like Amnesty's on developed democracies shape opinions more at home than abroad. "Does the world pay attention to this?" he said. "Not really."

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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