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Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon takes questions during an Ottawa news conference Monday, Feb. 22, 2010.

The Canadian Press

The Harper government has drawn a blast of international criticism for its handling of the internecine fracas at a once-respected human rights and democracy promoting organization.

The International Federation for Human Rights weighed in Friday, denouncing "political interference" at the federally-funded, arm's-length agency Rights & Democracy.

The federation, an umbrella group of 155 human rights organizations operating in more than 100 countries, also slammed the government's choice of Gérard Latulippe as the troubled agency's new president.

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It said Mr. Latulippe "does not have the moral authority to lead an organization like Rights & Democracy" given his past statements about the potential for Muslim immigrants to breed homegrown terrorism, his support for capital punishment and his opposition to same-sex marriage.

The federation called on Conservative government to reconsider its choice of Mr. Latulippe. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon appointed the former Canadian Alliance candidate late Tuesday night over the strenuous objections of all three opposition parties.

And the federation called for an independent investigation into the "crisis" at the agency, which it said risks destroying the agency and hurting Canada's reputation on the world stage.

"Canada's credibility is at stake," the federation said in a news release.

"Over the years, thanks to its independence, this non-partisan organization has been able to effectively contribute to the protection and promotion of human rights around the world. ... (The federation is) concerned by the current crisis which puts the work of this organization at stake."

Montreal-based Rights & Democracy has been in turmoil for months as recent government appointees to its board of directors have taken issue with three minor funding grants to human rights groups that have been critical of Israel.

The dispute went public in January after Remy Beauregard, then the agency's president, died of a heart attack following a stormy board meeting.

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Staff at the agency called on the government to replace three staunchly pro-Israel board members, including chairman Aurel Braun. But the government has stood by its appointees on the board and earlier this week, three senior managers at the agency were fired for insubordination.

The international federation registered Friday its "strong disagreement" with the board's characterization of two of the groups that receive grants - B'Tselem and Al Haq - as anti-Israeli extremists. It said both groups are affiliates of the federation who've won "international recognition" for their work promoting human rights in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories.

The federation also expressed "dismay" that the board decided to shut down Rights & Democracy's office in Geneva.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the federation's intervention is further proof that Conservative interference in Rights & Democracy has become "a scar on Canada's body politic."

"The political meddling of government appointees at Rights and Democracy and minister Cannon's support of the board's actions has not only undermined the reputation of the institute domestically, it is undermining Canada's credibility abroad," Mr. Dewar said.

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