The slippery slope at Rights & Democracy

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The events of the past few weeks at Rights & Democracy highlight an increasing and preoccupying trend on the part of the federal government to silence and control arms-length agencies and even civil society organizations whose opinions or actions disagree with government policy.

The scandal at Rights & Democracy is but the most recent in a lengthening list of attacks on arms-length institutions (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Elections Canada), government officials (the Colvin affair), and independent civil society organizations (Kairos, Alternatives, Court Challenges Programme).

As former programme managers at Rights & Democracy, we worked under three of its former Presidents (Messrs. Broadbent, Allmand, Roy), and we unequivocally denounce the irresponsible attitude of the current majority of the Board of the institution. The mandate of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development -- Rights & Democracy's official name -- is explicitly formulated in terms of the international human rights instruments (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its related Covenants) and it aims, amongst other things, "to help reduce the wide gap that sometimes exists between the formal adherence of states to international human rights agreements and the actual human rights practices of those states."

According to the law that created it, Rights & Democracy was not designed to promote or apply Canadian foreign policy. Its legal and political status as an arms-length institution reporting to Parliament has always been a balancing act and its independence has constantly been questioned, both from within the institution and from external sources. But its mandate has never been so travestied as under the present Board.

Never has it been subject to such vicious attacks as those perpetrated by the majority of members of this Board under the helm of Aurel Braun -- harassment, intimidation, resignations, suspension of three directors, hiring of a specialist in electronic surveillance, and the death of the Centre's President. The political decisions of this Board to annul the Centre's support to internationally recognized human rights organizations working in Israel and Palestine constitute a violation of the mandate of Rights & Democracy; they have been widely denounced, for example on Feb. 1 in an open letter signed by over 50 human rights organizations from Israel, Palestine, Europe and North America.

Our years at Rights & Democracy, working with a broad diversity of partners nationally and internationally, continually demonstrated to us that a democracy draws its vitality from free public debate and from the diversity of opinion and expertise freely expressed in it. Such a conviction is confirmed in Canada and other democracies by the practice of public financing of civil society organizations and by the existence of public institutions financed by the state but not subject to its direct control. When a government (or persons purporting to act in its name) attempts to silence public debate, be it through funding cuts or interference in the execution of the mandate of autonomous institutions, a warning light should come on for all of us for this is the beginning of a slippery slope towards authoritarianism.

We join our voices to those calling for an independent, non-partisan public enquiry into the actions of the majority of members of the Board of Rights & Democracy who have taken decisions in flagrant contradiction of the institution's mandate and who have done so in a manner which flouts the principle of transparency that they have used as a justification. The conclusions of such an enquiry should be presented to Parliament as soon as it resumes this spring.

It is a matter of urgency that the principle of autonomy of public interest institutions and organizations be officially reaffirmed and respected by the Government of the day and by all Canadian political parties. In the specific case of Rights & Democracy, that would mean that the individuals appointed to the Board be systematically selected on the basis of their expertise in relation to the mandate of the institution, on the basis of their demonstrated objectivity, and with the agreement of all the parties represented in Parliament. Such procedure should be the rule. It constitutes a small but concrete measure supporting the edifice of democracy.

Diana Bronson, employed at R&D 1991-2006
Madeleine Desnoyers, employed at R&D 1991-2007
Peter Globensky, employed at R&D 1990-1996
Nancy Thede, employed at R&D 1993-2003
Montreal, Feb. 4, 2010.

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