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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein is shown in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. (Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein is shown in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. (Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail)

UN high commissioner praises Ottawa’s effort to address issues Add to ...

The Liberals’ love affair with the United Nations continued Monday, as the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights praised Ottawa’s effort to address key issues both at home and abroad.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein met with Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion as well as representatives from First Nations and non-governmental organizations, discussing Canada’s human-rights record and the new government’s commitment to make improvements. His visit comes less than a week after UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon travelled to Ottawa and described Canada’s relationship with the UN as “very, very warm.”

Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper was openly cool to the UN, particularly the anti-Israel resolutions of the General Assembly. In both 2012 and 2013, Mr. Harper skipped the opening of the General Assembly – attended by many world leaders – though he travelled to New York for events held at the same time.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has embraced the world body. He met Mr. Zeid at the Davos economic forum in Switzerland in January, and invited him to Ottawa. It was the first working visit to Ottawa by the UN’s top human-rights official since Canadian Louise Arbour came in 2006, very early in the Conservative government.

Mr. Dion announced Monday that Ottawa would provide $15-million over three years to support the core work of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and that the government would oppose the use of the death penalty internationally, ending the practice of the former government not to seek clemency in some cases when Canadian citizens face execution.

In an interview, Mr. Zeid praised the Liberals’ approach to First Nations’ grievances and poverty, as well as Canada’s acceptance of Syrian refugees, which he contrasted with more fearful and belligerent attitudes elsewhere.

“We are very encouraged by what we see, although of course we recognize there are challenges that face Canada on the domestic front,” Mr. Zeid said at the offices of Global Affairs Canada.

On First Nations issues, the human-rights commissioner welcomed Ottawa’s decision to proceed with an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, and its commitment to accept the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; that includes implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which embodies the principle that aboriginal people should be accorded free, prior and informed consent to decisions that may affect them.

A UN special rapporteur visited Canada in 2014, and urged the Conservatives to call an inquiry into the fate of missing indigenous women, and to consult more effectively with First Nations people to reduce the “high levels of distrust” with which they view government. Mr. Zeid said the Liberal government’s approach – if followed through – could be an example to the world on how to deal with post-colonial grievances or minority populations.

“Not many countries have the strength to really take an unalloyed view of the past, reflect on it sincerely and embroider it into their national curriculum so the country can move on, having gone through this rather painful but needed exercise,” he said. “Hopefully, Canada can be encouraged to continue along this path and then be an example for other countries that are wrestling with these sorts of issues.”

On refugees, Mr. Zeid said Canada’s welcoming attitude was greatly appreciated by the UN and others around the globe who are dealing with the migrant crisis.

“Throughout many parts of the world, we see a mean-mindedness when it comes to the politics of these countries in respect of migrants and migrant rights,” he said. “There’s outright bigotry and racism being expressed by some right-wing politicians.”

The diplomat defended the UN Relief and Works Agency – which supports Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Syria – and urged Ottawa to resume funding for the agency that was cut off by the Conservatives. Some Jewish groups argue the UNRWA is too close to organizations like Hamas, but Mr. Zeid said the UN agency is engaged in humanitarian work and education in an extremely tough environment and deserves support.

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