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From Canada to Syria, Amnesty International persists after dark year for human rights

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Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada. Dennis Gruending photo.

On December 12, Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, spoke to a room filled with supporters in Ottawa about global human rights. The picture is sombre and disturbing, but Neve said those who hold human rights dear will persist in their efforts for as long as it takes. I was in the audience and reproduce my notes here, mostly in the form of paraphrase. In the interest of transparency, I should mention that I am a supporter of Amnesty International, financial and otherwise.

It is 70 years this week since the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in 1948. But 2018 has been a challenging and difficult year for the protection of those rights.

Attacking the Rohingya

Some examples: planned and systematic attacks against the Rohingya people in Myanmar constitute ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. More than one million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in what Neve described as a "massive human rights and humanitarian catastrophe."

The international community must put pressure on Myanmar's government to allow the refugees to return home safely. We must also demand that those responsible in the Myanmar government and military be brought to justice.

Rogues gallery

Syria is well into its seventh year of a war in which many groups have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. "It is easy to give up hope," Neve said, "but we must redouble our efforts. The worst thing we can do is to look away and to go away."

There are brutal wars and conflicts in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and elsewhere. Then there is the politics of hate, fear, derision, scapegoating and bigotry being perpetrated in the U.S. by Donald Trump against migrants and asylum seekers. Trump's election, Neve said, is a wake-up call for the community. "We have to respond through activism and also to take our message to those who voted for him in 2016."  There is an accompanying rogues gallery in Brazil, the Philippines, Venezuela, Russia, Hungary and now in Italy.

The 'crisis'

Sixty-five million people are either officially refugees or have been forcibly displaced. The word "crisis," Neve said, is not so much in the number of people displaced, who could be accommodated by the nations of the world, but rather in the disgraceful and cruel treatment meted out to people by their own governments and others who choose to demonize them.

Improvements in Canada

In Canada, there are attempts to stir up fear and resentment over this country's signing the Global Compact for Migration. This is a voluntary protocol agreed to by countries about how to cooperate in managing migration effectively. It is not a binding treaty and it does not cede control of Canada's borders to the United Nations, as some people claim. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and his party have bought into this inflammatory narrative and it may well become an issue in the next 2019 federal election campaign.

The human rights situation in Canada has improved somewhat under the Liberal government elected in 2015. In 2016, 45,000 Syrian refugees were resettled, although there are another five million living outside of their country. The Trudeau government is also poised to pass Bill C-262 (a private member's bill proposed and tabled by Romeo Saganash, an Indigenous MP from Labrador), which would provide a detailed framework for Canada's acting upon its ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The government also appointed a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which despite its significant problems, is expected to report in 2019.

Problems remain

But problems remain, including Canada's continuing support for the Safe Third Country Agreement, in which Canada and the U.S. declare the other country safe for refugees. That closes the door on most asylum seekers who would otherwise approach Canadian border stations from the U.S. Increasingly, people such as those are being vilified by the U.S. president and others in his administration, and targeted for pickup and deportation. Some of them are fearful and are crossing the international border into Canada at remote locations, which can be dangerous, particularly in the cold of winter.

Amnesty International believes that the U.S. is no longer a safe country for refugees but the organization has not been able to convince the Canadian government to abrogate the agreement. For that reason Amnesty, the Canadian Council for Refugees, and the Canadian Council of Churches have filed a legal challenge of the designation of the United States as a safe third country.


Human rights defenders are under siege in many countries. Yet, Neve said, despite the intimidation and attacks, those who cherish those rights will persist in their efforts and we owe them our support.

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former member of Parliament. He has worked as a print and television journalist and a CBC Radio host. This piece appeared on Gruending's blog Pulpit and Politics  on December 12, 2018.

Photo by Dennis Gruending

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