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Trading away human rights? Canada turns a blind eye toward abuses against Roma in EU

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Barely a week goes by when the Conservative government does not issue at least one press release touting the value of a Canada-European Union (EU) trade deal.

Last week Trade Minister Ed Fast told British Columbians that such a deal would "eliminate tariffs, including those on key provincial exports such as forest products, metals and minerals, fish and seafood, agriculture and agri-food products, and services."

The week before, the Minister told Quebeckers that a trade deal with the EU would benefit that province's chemical and aluminum industries.

These exhortations always end by saying "the EU is Canada's second-largest trading partner and ... the world's largest integrated economy. The ongoing trade negotiations with the EU represent Canada's most significant trade initiative since the historic North American Free Trade Agreement."

In other words, this trade agreement is a big deal for Canada and for this government.

Not everyone agrees. The Council of Canadians has been arguing for many months now that there is a poisoned pill in the deal: extending patent protection for brand name drugs.

European based pharmaceutical companies are pushing for the trade agreement to extend patent terms and other monopoly protections to brand name drugs. The Council says that would make prescription drugs more expensive for Canadians, and "eliminate any planned savings at the provincial level through bulk purchasing of generic drugs."

The Council also opposes the Canada-EU deal because of its potential impact on Canada's cultural industries, and because it could prevent Canadian municipalities from favouring local providers when they buy goods or services.

However, there is a nasty underbelly to these negotiations that neither the government nor its critics talk about. That nasty side has less to with economics than with human rights.

'Hungary is no longer a democracy'

 To the Conservative Canadian government's occasional chagrin, the Europeans are not loath to – sometimes boastfully -- tout their own social and environmental successes.

It is true that Europeans produce far less in the way of carbon emissions than we do in Canada.

It is also true that on many human rights fronts Europe has been in the vanguard. For instance, the EU will not accept as members states that practice the death penalty.

As well, the European Union treaties -- which are, in effect, its constitution -- include stringent provisions concerning human rights and democratic practices that all members must, in theory, respect.

But that human rights record is looking somewhat tattered these days.

In a recent article for the British newspaper the New Statesman, Benjamin Abtan, president of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement, states baldly that Hungary, an EU member in good standing, is "no longer a democracy."

Abtan, who once headed a Jewish youth organization, argues forcefully that recent constitutional changes in Hungary, wrought by the small-c conservative Viktor Orban government, have the effect of wiping out "what was left of opposition forces against the government."

The new Orban constitution takes away the power of the Hungarian Constitutional Court to review legislation. From her on in, the Hungarian government may, with impunity, pass any laws it wants, even those that defy basic rights.

Abtan says this is only the latest nail in the coffin that now holds a moribund Hungarian democracy.

The Orban government's attacks on democracy, says Abtan, include:

crippling restriction of the freedom of the press, political direction of the Central Bank, inclusion in the Constitution of Christian religious references and of the 'social utility' of individuals as a necessary condition for the enforcement of social rights . . .condemnation of homosexuality, criminalization of the homeless, attacks against women's rights, impunity afforded to perpetrators of racist murders [and] the strengthening of a virulent anti-Semitism...

Amnesty condemns the EU for its treatment of 6 million Roma

 Those who have suffered most are the members of Hungary's large Roma (also known as "Gypsy") minority, who face discrimination in almost all aspects of life, from employment to housing to education.

By contrast to nearly all other Central and East European countries Hungary is also home to a relatively large Jewish community. In that context, Abtan worries about the Orban regime's flirtation with or, at best, indifference to the rising assertiveness of historic anti-Semitism.

"Only a few days ago," he writes, "Prime Minister Viktor Orban officially decorated three extreme right-wing leading figures: journalist Ferenc Szaniszlo, known for his diatribes against the Jews and the Roma people, who he compares to 'monkeys'; anti-Semitic archaeologist Kornel Bakav, who blames the Jews for having organized the slave trade in the Middle-Age; finally, 'artist' Petras Janos, who proudly claims his proximity to the [extreme right party] Jobbik and its paramilitary militia, responsible for several racist murders of Romani people and heiress of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, that organized the extermination of Jews and Gypsies during the Second World War."

On Thursday morning, April 3, Amnesty International issued a new report that it entitled: "Wake-up call for a giant: The EU must end discrimination against Roma." The report notes that about 6 million Roma live in EU countries, where they face systemic discrimination and persecution, including forced segregation in schooling.

This is what Amnesty has to say on the issue of actual violence against the Roma:

“More than 120 serious violent attacks against Roma and their property occurred in Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria between January 2008 and July 2012, including shootings, stabbings and arson attacks. State authorities, including the police, have in many instances failed to prevent or thoroughly investigate these attacks."

Human rights have fallen low on the EU agenda

Abtan and others point out that the EU has the authority to call Hungary to order.

The EU, Abtan argues, could pursue action under Article 7 of its treaty, which "would allow it to suspend the voting rights of a country ... case of a potential violation of common values​,"

Instead, while the EU does nothing, small-c conservatives throughout Europe (including the powerful Christian Democrats of Germany) continue to treat Orban as a respected member of their political family.

The EU's focus, these days, is not on the larger issues of democracy and human rights. It is almost exclusively economic.

As another writer points out, Europe is suffering from "a kind of political attention deficit disorder."

Writing in Britain's The Guardian, political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller says: "There is no European public sphere where the media would consistently report on developments in the smaller member states in particular ... and the eurozone crisis is still consuming huge amounts of political capital and makes it tricky for a country like Germany to be seen as berating other governments not just on finances but also on the rule of law."

Amnesty's John Dalhuisen echoes this concern:

What we see is the [EU] sanctioning countries on technical issues in areas of transport and taxation, for example, but failing to grapple with issues which are of vital importance to millions of people such as forced evictions, segregation and hate-motivated attacks.

The Nobel Peace Prize winning EU has the power to end discriminatory practices that are rife in many of its member States. It must use these now.

Canada had been a safe haven -- for a while

One of the peculiarities of the EU treaties is that they do not allow member states to accept citizens of fellow member states as refugees.

And so, there is a perfect Catch-22 situation for persecuted peoples such as Hungary’s Roma. The "senior" EU countries, such as Germany and France have neither the energy nor the will to make sure the Roma’s rights are respected, but will not offer them asylum when they flee.

Until not too long ago, (however ambivalently) multicultural and diverse Canada provided an avenue of escape and a safe haven for the Roma.

Then came the trade negotiations with the EU, and a sense among Canadian officials that the Roma were "Europe's problem" which should not be foisted on Canada.

And so, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney bestowed the status of "safe country of origin" on all EU countries, including Hungary (but excluding Romania and Bulgaria).

That move effectively closed the Canadian avenue of escape. The way the rules have been written, asylum seekers from designated "safe" countries have almost no chance of gaining acceptance as refugees in Canada.

The "safe country" designation is not permanent, however. The Minister of Immigration can invoke it or revoke it at any time.

In the past, the Immigration Department and the notionally independent Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) have said they consult Amnesty reports, among other sources of intelligence, to determine the true situation in refugee-producing countries.

Maybe someone in government or the IRB will have a chance to read Amnesty's latest report on the Roma of the EU.

Kenney has, in the past, expressed great concern about the activities of Hungarian extremists he characterized as "xenophobic nutbars." At the same time, when asked if he did not fear that the "safe country" designation would be taken as tacit encouragement by those "nutbars" the Minister tried to argue that the "safe" designation does not give a country "bragging rights."

Still, many argue that the very least a safe country designation should mean is that a so-designated country is, in fact, safe!

Canada is never happy when it gets lectured by the Europeans on, say, climate change. Here is a case where Canada could quite legitimately point out to Europe how it is not living up to its own stated principles.

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