What is the concern? – by Alex Neve
Opening remarks by Alex Neve, Secretary General Amnesty International Canada (English branch)
Voices-Voix Strategizing Meeting, Ottawa, April 21, 2010
We’ve all come together today – in impressive numbers and from a remarkable array of sectors and backgrounds – because we are concerned. That concern has been growing for some time but has quite dramatically deepened in recent weeks and months – and has carried with it many emotions: disquiet, uncertainty, frustration, outrage, and very serious worry. It has however, I think, for many of us been difficult to clearly and concretely grasp the precise nature of the concern and name it.
As the examples have mounted we have come to use some pretty strong terms: dissent under attack, opposition being silenced, civil society under siege, democracy in peril.
So what is it, what is it in particular that brings all of us, in all of our diversity, together.
Maybe a good way to start is by thinking about some of the examples.
Consider the following, just a sampling of a list of examples that is growing unbelievably long.
- Status of Women funding rules changed so that groups advocating for protection of women’s human rights no longer supported. Impact is dramatic, including eventual closure of highly respected NAWL.
- Court Challenges program discontinued, cutting off one of the most important avenues by which Charter of Rights court cases have been brought forward by and on behalf of society’s most marginalized and disenfranchised.
- Outspoken heads of important oversight bodies, charged with monitoring and even adjudicating on government conduct in areas where human rights are very much on the line, have been fired or not been renewed in their positions because they have stood up to or disagreed with government on a number of crucial issues: MPCC, Office of Public Complaints, Nuclear Safety Commission.
- Government employees who have spoken out and disagreed with the government about human rights issues have been intimidated and derided, and thus many have been silenced. Richard Colvin’s experience has certainly cast a shadow over others.
- Recent news that the Canadian Human Rights Commission has made the difficult decision to close down three offices in Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax because of funding constraints.
- Arbitrary and capricious funding decisions from CIDA, Status of Women and other government departments have devastated some organizations and left many others in a position of wholly untenable uncertainty about important programming. One common thread appears to be a solidifying government policy not to fund organizations engaged in what we would likely consider to be human rights advocacy. There are a number of groups here today who have endured this – some of whom have had funding denied, others expecting it very soon. And it is by no means a storyline limited to the Ottawa/Toronto/Montreal triangle – witness the funding cuts that New Brunswick’s Coalition for Pay Equity just experienced.
- Deeply concerning funding decisions have been made or loom that risk curtailing incredibly important advocacy and research work with respect to a number of vital issues effecting Aboriginal Canadians: the National Residential School Survivors Society, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit initiative all being very troubling examples.
- And then, there is Israel and Palestine. It has become clear that groups, large or small, independent or creatures of Parliament – who in any way carry out or provide financial support to programs seeking to defend and promote the rights of Palestinians, will face government repercussions. It does not fit the government’s orthodoxy that the problems in Israel and Palestine cannot be laid at the feet of the Israeli government. Israel will not be criticized on the government’s dime.
- Some have received considerable media and political attention, such as the alarming crisis that has enveloped Canada’s world-respected agency, Rights and Democracy, triggered by the ideological opposition of a handful of government appointed Board members to relatively small grants provided to well-known Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups.
- The clearly politically motivated decision to deny CIDA funding to KAIROS and Alternatives because of their programs of work with and on behalf of Palestinians.
- The Canadian Arab Federation lost immigration department funding for resettlement programs because of comments the Federation’s president made about the situation of Palestinians.
- An academic conference at York University faced intense political and administration interference, going to the very heart of academic freedom, again because of ideological views clearly not prepared to countenance criticism of Israel’s human rights record.
- And recently the Mada Al-Carmel Arab Centre has had to go to Federal Court after the International Development Research Centre ended funding support for a project of social science research examining the life of Palestinians.
And that, of course, is only the beginning of the list – I’m sure that by the end of this afternoon we will have heard much more.
What is at stake, in our view, is the freedom and the ability of Canadians to vigorously advocate for the protection of human rights – of all rights and of all people – both here within Canada and abroad, and to do so without political interference, intimidation or manipulation.
It is vital to understand it in those terms. What draws us together is not the fact that we may disagree with or even be strongly opposed to some of the positions or policies the government itself adopts or advances with respect to many of these issues — its position on Israel and Palestine, on women’s human rights, on the rights of Indigenous peoples, or torture in Afghanistan. I know that many, likely all of us, here today actively respond to the government’s initiatives and, through the media, public education, outreach to parliamentarians and other strategies, actively seek to bring a strong human rights message to the debates that swirl around those and other concerns.
We come together today not because of that concern about the issues. Our joint efforts in response to the issues continues – of course it does. Concerns about a new Bill. Objections to positions taken at the UN. Advocacy in response to cutting a government program. That work goes on –it always has and always will – sometimes more intensely than at other times, depending on what is on the public policy agenda. That is not what we are here to speak about today.
No …. we come together today not because of the issues themselves – but because it is so vitally important that Voices are able to speak out about and debate these issues. Voices need to be heard. And Voices need support and funding and space so that they can be heard. Voices of opposition need to be heard. Voices of support need to be heard. Voices that bring us uncomfortable messages need to be heard. And it is the Voices that are at risk – that are being punished for the message they bring. Voices are being sidelined, derided, fired, punished. Not because they have wasted money or done their job poorly. Not because they have spread lies. But simply because they speak out about things the government does not want to hear.
Some may say – that is the business of government. Governments come and governments go and they always make decisions about which groups are in fashion and which are out. Who will get funding and who may lose out.
That is true. But we have – I think it is safe to say – never before seen or experienced something of this nature. What we are witnessing is a systematic onslaught against what I think is a bedrock principle that most Canadians believe – that is in all of our common good to ensure that all voices are heard on crucial issues.
And let’s be clear that this is not a matter of whining about funding decisions. What is at play here is the government’s particular and very important responsibility to ensure that voices that would otherwise be marginalized and overlooked are able to speak out and able to be heard; and to provide support, including financial support, to make that possible. We are not a nation founded or built on some sense of orthodoxy, ideology and conformity. We are a nation of diversity and debate. We are here this afternoon because we all know that we cannot stand by and watch as that is taken apart.
Tags: Amnesty International
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