Rights and democracy aren’t supposed to be controversial things in Canada. In theory, they have widespread support, which is why an agency called Rights & Democracy was supported by all Canadian political parties when it was founded in 1988 by the Conservative government under Brian Mulroney. From the start, the agency was political but nonpartisan, seeking to promote human rights and democratic institution-building through grants to NGOs around the world. The agency has funded human rights groups in Burma, Congo, Haiti, Colombia, Morocco, and the Palestinian Territories, to name just a few places.
But in recent weeks, Rights & Democracy has been in turmoil. Since the Harper government appointed a slew of ideological supporters, this government’s all-too-frequent habit of cutting funds from any group that challenges the current political orthodoxy has made Rights & Democracy its latest victim. Harper’s Conservatives received less than 38 per cent of the popular vote in the last election, yet they have essentially taken carte blanche to reshape spending to mirror their own divisive agenda, taking particular aim at any agency that dares to promote Palestinian human rights or critique Israel.
David Matas, legal counsel for Israel advocacy group B’nai Brith, was one of Harper’s appointees to the Rights & Democracy board, and it was he who pounced on three small donations made in 2009, out of a budget of $10 million. They went to reputable agencies working in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to fund investigative work into human rights violations during the Gaza invasion. B’Tselem (an Israeli group), as well as Al-Haq and Al Mezan (Palestinian organizations), each received $10,000. These grants set off the storm surrounding Rights & Democracy. The new Harper-appointed board clashed with Rights & Democracy’s staff, accusing them of funding terrorists and anti-Semites.
In reports sent to the Canadian Council of Refugee listserv, Matas repeatedly cited NGO Monitor, a blog that tracks NGOs, as the basis for his criticism of these organizations. The mandate of NGO Monitor is “to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated anti-Israel agendas.” (Emphasis ours.) Few other sources were cited in Matas’s document – the apparent grounds on which funding to B’Tselem and the others was repudiated. This should be a point of concern to all those troubled about the way foreign aid is distributed under the current government.
In personal correspondence with the authors of this piece, Matas further argued that B’Tselem and Al-Haq were dangerous because they engaged in “lawfare” – critiquing housing destructions, illegal settlements, and other human rights violations through the courts. That Matas would find this objectionable is also worrying, given that human rights advocacy is based on a system of seeking legal recourse. “Lawfare,” as conceived by Matas and co., is in no way akin to “warfare.” It is legal advocacy, plain and simple. We think human rights groups should use the courtroom, rather than violence, to advance their cause, and we are concerned about characterizing peaceful advocacy as something Canadian aid dollars should not fund.
Explosive meetings over these grants led other board members at Rights & Democracy to resign, including McGill law professor Payam Akhavan. After the raucous board meeting where Akhavan and others walked out, agency president Rémy Beauregard died from an unexpected heart attack. During his funeral, someone broke into Rights & Democracy’s office and stole the laptops of certain long-time staff, leaving the petty cash.
McGill has had an ongoing relationship with Rights & Democracy. The organization has worked with professors and students in the law and education faculties. The Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism has sent dozens of students to Rights & Democracy for summer internships. These partnerships have fundamentally enhanced and illuminated the study of fields like international law, by grounding the theory that law students learn in the classroom with practical applications in the work of NGOs that receive funding. Anna Shea, a law student and former Rights & Democracy intern, described [her] work as “one of the highlights of her legal education.”
The current situation at Rights & Democracy is about much more than three grants. It is about the implications of cutting funding to human rights organizations in zones of conflict and political dissonance and, more broadly, about Canada’s role in such regions. Where there is no legal recourse for citizens, it is not surprising that mortar shells and rocks are the only alternatives sought. And as recent history has shown, these cycles of violence and terrorism should be a point of concern not only for those directly affected, but for the global community at large, as they often extend beyond their zones of containment.
Alexandra Dodger (Law III) & Safia Lakhani (Law II) are students in the Faculty of Law, focusing on international and human rights law. Write them at email@example.com.