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A rights agency's future in peril Add to ...

Around the table, jaws dropped. Sima Samar, former deputy president of Afghanistan and noted human-rights campaigner, gathered her papers, got to her feet and announced she was resigning.

Moments earlier, the board of Rights and Democracy, a government-funded agency that promotes human rights around the world, had voted to axe her colleague Guido Riveras Franck of Bolivia. That prompted fellow board member Payam Akhavan, a McGill law professor, to announce he was walking out.

The dominoes were tumbling and Ms. Samar had seen enough. She didn't travel to Toronto from Kabul to be sidelined by an all-male human-rights board, she later said. The 12 men seated at the table had ceased to debate, and showed no interest in her views, she said. It was the culmination of months of hostility. Every vote was being won by a new majority determined to hold to account the organization's president, Rémy Beauregard.

That night, Mr. Beauregard died of a heart attack.

And so began a slide into chaos, distinguished by a staff rebellion, an office burglary and the suspension of employees.

The question now is whether the government intends to rescue the agency created by Brian Mulroney in 1988 or has other plans.

The battle for Rights and Democracy was fuelled by the poison politics of the Middle East, but morphed into a struggle for power. On one side, a group loyal to Mr. Beauregard, on the other a block determined the president would answer to them.

The agency uses its $11-million budget, funded by taxpayers, to provide grants to non-governmental agencies abroad. It was created to be at arm's length from government to prevent foreign regimes from complaining that Ottawa was funding groups critical of their records.

A federally appointed board was created to oversee it.

The problems burst into view in July, seven months before the Jan. 7 meeting, at a vitriolic two-day session in Montreal.

Board members shouted for hours, accusing each other of sneakiness, mistreatment and injustice.

The spark was three small grants in the Middle East that Mr. Beauregard approved after Israel's offensive in Gaza in January, 2009. Board chairman Aurel Braun, a University of Toronto professor, was deeply concerned.

Two grants went to Palestinian groups, Al-Haq and Al Mezan, that Mr. Braun and his allies view as enemies of Israel. They argued that money sent to Al Mezan might be diverted to the banned terrorist organization Hamas. An Israeli court has said that Al-Haq's director, Shawan Jabarin, lauded by some rights activists, is an activist for another banned terrorism group. The third grant went to B'Tselem, an Israeli group critical of Israel's rights record.

Mr. Braun and others insist Mr. Beauregard and his staff fought board members' attempts to examine and judge their work.

But Mr. Braun's faction didn't just oppose the grants, they rapped Mr. Beauregard's knuckles.

In an evaluation of Mr. Beauregard's performance, Mr. Braun and two board allies said he had shown reckless leadership in approving the grants, and had communicated poorly with Mr. Braun.

Mr. Braun's allies insist the review was mostly positive, but judged that his approval of the grants could upset the public and Ottawa. "You have to walk a fine line, and we found he didn't," said one.

The committee sent its evaluation directly to the Privy Council Office, insisting the bylaws dictated they could not show it to Mr. Beauregard. This move became a huge point of contention.

When the issue was raised at the June meeting, Jean Guilbeault, a Beauregard ally, condemned the three authors of the evaluation.

"The atmosphere was extremely tense. The report was a smear," one board member said. "... Either they wanted [to be]rid of him or they wanted a more docile leader."

Mr. Beauregard demanded to see the evaluation. When they refused, he distributed copies he had obtained under access to information laws.

A look of horror on their faces, Mr. Braun and his allies got up from the table and held a caucus in the corner, one board member said. They battled for several more hours.

Both sides felt bruised, but agreed that a committee would revisit the evaluation. It never happened. The next board meeting was cancelled at the last minute. A month later, David Matas and Michael Van Pelt were appointed, shifting the balance of power in Mr. Braun's favour.

"That was the declaration of war," one board member said. "It was clear they were running a one-party state."

Mr. Braun and his allies argue that a dispute over the board's power of oversight has been twisted into political conspiracy theories that the Harper government stacked the board with conservatives or pro-Israel hardliners.

All board members were Conservative appointees. Several are staunchly pro-Israel, including Mr. Braun and Mr. Matas, a lawyer for B'nai Brith and a card-carrying Liberal - but the agency rarely funds projects in the Middle East.

Mr. Matas introduced a motion on Jan. 7 to "repudiate" the Mideast grants, one designed to acknowledge a mistake and turn the page. Mr. Beauregard and his allies agreed and voted in favour.

But the dismissal of Mr. Riveras Franck was the last straw for Ms. Samar and Mr. Akhavan. Mr. Beauregard's death propelled the story into the headlines. Staff have lashed out at the board, and three employees perceived as leaders of the opposition have been suspended.

Some fear the Conservatives will scrap the agency.

Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon met with Mr. Braun yesterday and said they both want a "constructive future" for Rights and Democracy.

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