UN reports stun Canada

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

The Canadian government’s response to United Nations reports on the country’s record on hunger, Aboriginal people and torture has some thoughtful Canadians worried: Is Canada becoming too sensitive to even mild criticism?

Canada as a democracy would be expected to welcome suggestions, even criticism, that could improve the lives of Canadians. But the government shied away from a serious discussion of the issues. Instead, it lambasted its critics.

This led to 100 organizations, supported by former ministers Flora MacDonald and Warren Allmand, asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper to apologize for the government’s “unprecedented attacks” on Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. He had visited Canada under Canada’s long-standing invitation to UN representatives to visit Canada whenever needed.

De Schutter pointed out that some 2.5 million Canadians are too poor to afford proper food. Some Canadian ministers assailed him but he stood his ground and made recommendations to solve the problem.

“Prime Minister, there is no line to be drawn between protecting human rights at home and protecting them in the rest of the world,” said the open letter. “Human rights are universal and do not only apply to developing countries or countries in which there are military dictatorships.”

Last December another UN official faced Canadian ire. James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, was derided for deploring the horrible conditions at the Attawapiskat First Nations reserve.

He expressed “deep concern about the dire social and economic conditions of the Attawapiskat First Nation, which exemplifies the conditions of many aboriginal communities in the country.” Many of this First Nation’s members live in unheated shacks or trailers, with no running water, he stated. The problem is particularly serious as winter approaches in the remote northern area where the Attawapiskat community lives, with winter temperatures often as low as -28 degrees Celsius.

He continued: “The social and economic situation of the Attawapiskat seems to represent the condition of many First Nation communities living on reserves throughout Canada, which is allegedly akin to third world conditions. Yet, this situation is not representative of non-Aboriginal communities in Canada, a country with overall human rights indicators scoring among the top of all countries of the world. Aboriginal communities face vastly higher poverty rates, and poorer health, education and employment rates as compared to non-Aboriginal people.”

The plight of the Attawapiskat First Nation reserve won media attention and the government provided emergency assistance while blaming reserve leaders for mismanaging previously given assistance. That amounted to about $90 million in the last five years for the 3,000-member reserve.

Canada is now also bristling at the report of the UN’s Committee Against Torture, a panel of 10 experts led by Claudio Grossman, dean of American University’s Washington College of Law. The committee criticized Syria most harshly and seven other countries.

But it also stated that Canada was “complicit” in the torture of three Canadian Muslims in Syria and Egypt and of Afghan detainees. It chided Canada for stalling on the repatriation of Canadian Omar Khadr from Guantanamo Bay. The Canadian Supreme Court has ruled that Khadr was abused at Guantanamo Bay with the complicity of Canadian officials. The committee listed more than 20 reforms Canada must undertake to comply with the Convention Against Torture that it signed in 1985.

A judicial inquiry under former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci has already concluded that Canadian officials contributed to the ordeal suffered by Abdullah Al-Malki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin by providing false information about them to foreign governments resulting in their being tortured. But the government refuses to compensate them and to apologize, though it did so in the case of Canadian Maher Arar who suffered a similar fate in Syria. The matter is dragging on in the courts. The UN committee argues that the government should fulfill its convention obligations by compensating them. It also criticizes a directive from Public Safety Minister Vic Toews allowing the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to use information gleaned from torture if it deemed public safety to be at risk.

Instead of accepting their responsibility, Canadian authorities have chosen to criticize the UN. “In times when there are serious concerns regarding human rights violations across the world, it is disappointing that the UN would spend its time decrying Canada,” stated Julie Carmichael, speaking for Minister Toews. Such a response would be expected from repressive regimes. From Canada it is shocking.

Canadians who view their country as an example for the rest of the world - in upholding human rights and dignity, justice and the rule of law - can only be deeply disappointed. The open letter to the prime minister clearly expresses those feelings.

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian newspaperman, civil servant and refugee judge. He has received the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for his work as a journalist, leadership of Ottawa’s Muslims and promoting understanding between Canadians of different backgrounds.