Defender of human rights takes a brief step sideways

UN Watch in the News

Susan Martinuk
February 1, 2008

The international community has long considered Canada to be a leader in promoting human rights at home and defending human rights around the world. So, in 2004, it came as no surprise that the United Nations appointed Canada’s Louise Arbour, a Supreme Court of Canada justice and former chief prosecutor at international war crime tribunals, as its high commissioner for human rights.

Given the UN’s well-established failure at policing human rights around the globe, there was considerable expectation that Arbour was the one who would lead the UN to stand up to the world’s bullies.

She had already led a high-profile struggle to bring Bosnia’s war criminals to justice on behalf of the thousands of victims of ethnic and religious cleansing, and a fictionalized account of her efforts had been made into a 2006 CTV movie.

She was a great defender of human rights, but now she has become more of the problem than the solution.

Earlier this week, Arbour announced her endorsement of the highly questionable Arab Charter of Rights. It has been developed by nations like Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian Authority to protect the human rights of their citizens, but through a framework that ensures core Arab beliefs are maintained.

One such belief is the rejection and “elimination” of Zionism (which asserts Israel’s internationally recognized right to exist) because it is a “violation of human rights” and “a threat to international peace and security.” In short, the charter is blatantly anti-Semitic, equates Zionism with racism and essentially calls for the destruction of Israel.

So why did Arbour initially call it “an important step forward”?

When the UN’s high commissioner for human rights endorses the destruction of any nation, it’s time to hold her to account.

But just as Canadian columnists were getting out the skewers, Arbour “clarified” her position by saying she was indeed troubled by several of the “rights” enshrined in the charter, such as the death penalty for children, and the diminished rights of women and non-citizens.

As for the destruction of Israel, she merely stated that the rejection of Zionism is contrary to a 1991 UN resolution. Not exactly reassuring.

She shouldn’t get off the hook so easily. This isn’t the only instance in which Arbour has shown bad judgment and supported questionable documents.

In September 2007, Arbour travelled to Iran to join a so-called human rights conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a group of nations that primarily consists of rogue states, anti-democratic forces and dictatorships outside the mainstream (Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, etc). Her official presence granted the conference a degree of credibility (as much as UN-credibility is worth) and respect that it didn’t deserve.

Worse still, she seemed to support NAM’s key resolution, stating that human rights is a relative concept and calling on the UN to respect cultural diversity in human rights.

In other words, if one culture believes that a woman who is raped should die, then the UN and its member nations must respect that.

Despite all this enlightened chatter about human rights, the conference failed to bring about positive change.

The day after Arbour left, Iran conducted a mass execution and killed 21 prisoners.

Perhaps we should give Arbour the benefit of the doubt and say her attendance was a demonstration of tolerance.

If so, it’s confirmation that the moral equivalence of the UN has had a far greater affect on Arbour’s principles than those principles have had on it.

Failing to take a public stand for what is right is similar to our very modern, but very bad parenting plans.

It neglects the idea that a responsibility to one’s people and to the international community should be the underlying motivator of protecting human rights, rewards nations for their bad actions and, most of all, neglects the fact heinous murderers rarely respond to reason (hence, drafters of the Arab charter ignored the UN’s helpful suggestions and Iran continued its human rights abuses without compunction in the aftermath of hosting a world conference on human rights).

Canada has a duty to its citizens and to the people of the world to stand up for what is right.

But there are growing questions about whether Canadian leadership can make any difference at all if we are afraid to challenge the perpetrators of human wrongs.

Arbour would do well to consider Winston Churchill’s comment, “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

Copyright 2008, Calgary Herald
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