Gil Troy: Canadians uphold a proud human rights legacy

Canadians uphold a proud human rights legacy

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 5-21-09

Canada stood tall – dare we say, glorious and free? – during the recent Durban Review debacle in Geneva, thanks to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s pre-emptive strike in boycotting the so-called UN anti-racism conference long before anyone else did.
Canada is now spearheading the push to reform the United Nations, while challenging liberal and autocratic hypocrisy worldwide. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bigotry at an anti-racism conference defined Durban II as yet another festival of despots bashing the West and Israel. But more significant was the alliance forged beyond the conference halls between pro-Israel and human rights activists frustrated that the UN’s Israel obsession hurts human rights.

Canadians such as MP and former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler and the executive director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, were essential marriage brokers in building this friendship, demanding the UN live up to its ideals and condemn the world’s true human rights abusers.

During the first World Conference Against Racism, held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, the streets filled with anti-Zionists shouting vitriolic anti-Semitic slogans that Adolf Hitler didn’t finish the job. Some human rights groups and pro-Israel groups began working to reform the UN human rights mechanisms.

Not surprisingly, Canadians such as Cotler and Neuer were crucial in launching this initiative. Many Canadians maintain great faith in the UN’s founding ideals and are proud that John Peters Humphrey, a longtime McGill University law professor, drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Cotler, on leave as a law professor from McGill, is a world-renowned human rights crusader who has spent decades cris-crossing the globe defending the oppressed, including Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky. Neuer was Cotler’s student at McGill, continuing this McGill – and Canadian – tradition.

When the UN started preparations to host a review conference in Durban, Neuer was particularly well-placed to head off another hatefest. Based in Geneva as the executive director of UN Watch, he has frequently highlighted the UN’s anti-Israel obsession and its hypocrisy in letting dictatorships dominate the Human Rights Council. Working with various organizations in shifting coalitions – including its parent organization the American Jewish Committee, as well as NGO Monitor and B’nai Brith International, Freedom House and Freedom Now – UN Watch helped redirect the process.

Effective lobbying of the Ford Foundation and others cut off funds that NGOs would have used to replicate the Durban I sideshow. The UN, embarrassed by Durban I, agreed to shift the venue of this year’s conference to Geneva, where the UN and Swiss police could better control events. Western diplomats worked to moderate the Durban Review declaration. In this environment, Canada’s bold decision to boycott galvanized the forces trying to right Durban’s wrongs.

As a result, in Geneva, there were no angry mass rallies against Israel. UN Watch and dozens of other groups hosted conferences and side meetings, giving dissidents and victims from Iran, Egypt, Cuba, Burma, Rwanda and Darfur opportunities to tell their tales. The participants denounced the United Nations for allowing oppressors such as Libya to chair the Human Rights Council, and for ignoring real abuses in their zeal to demonize Israel.

The largest demonstration appears to have been a festive gathering of 2,000 to 3,000 Israel supporters on the conference’s third day. Joining one American, one Italian, one Israeli, and one French politician on the podium were two of us from McGill, Cotler and I, as well as Harper’s parliamentary secretary – and personal representative to the side conferences – MP Pierre Poilievre. The MC, David Harris, of the American Jewish committee, joked that at these events, Canadians rarely outnumber Americans. May we always compete to lead the way on these issues.

“Please use your liberty to promote ours,” Soe Aung, a Burmese dissident, begged at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy, which celebrated 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention. While the first Durban sideshow embodied the UN at its worst, the second Durban side conferences tried to meet Aung’s challenge.

If the UN starts to reform, history will honour the Conservative Harper – with his Liberal colleague Cotler – for not only saving the United Nations, but also for helping to save many liberal activists from their own moral myopia.

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