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Canada should refuse to vote human-rights abusers to UN council, MP alliance says

Irwin Cotler stands during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, December 14, 2011. Colter, along with an all-party alliance of MPs believe Canada must publicly declare that it will not vote human-rights abusers such as China onto the United Nations Human Rights Council, and it should pressure other democracies to make the same pledge.


Canada must publicly declare that it will not vote human-rights abusers such as China onto the United Nations Human Rights Council, and it should pressure other democracies to make the same pledge, former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler and an all-party alliance of MPs say.

On Oct. 28, the UN General Assembly will elect 14 new members to the 47-member Human Rights Council. Mr. Cotler, a renowned human-rights lawyer, is leading the call for Canada to vote down four countries known for their human rights violations – Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba – as they seek re-election to the UN body.

"People in these countries really see Canada as having the potential to be a leader in the promotion and protection of human rights, and [one that] can mobilize other fellow democracies at a time when there appears to be a dearth of leadership within the European community, the Latin American community, amongst even follow democracies," Mr. Cotler said.

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"We should leverage our involvement in the various forums to exercise leadership."

The call for action comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government looks to rebrand Canada on the world stage and re-engage with countries the former Conservative administration distanced itself from. For instance, the government agreed to talks for an extradition treaty with China last month following the release of Canadian missionary Kevin Garratt from a Chinese prison.

Mr. Cotler was joined by human-rights activists, representatives from non-government organizations and members of the Raoul Wallenberg all-party parliamentary caucus at a press conference in Ottawa Wednesday. The group urged the government not to let its interest in re-engagement with countries known to violate human rights interfere with Canada's vote at the UN Human Rights Council.

"Voting to put China on the Human Rights Council would be like picking the fox to guard the hen's house while he was still wiping feathers off his mouth from his last meal," said Chinese human-rights activist and dissident Yang Jianli. "I urge Canada … to lead collective action among democracies and openly vote a 'no' vote on China."

Countries do not generally disclose their voting preference for the annual Human Rights Council election, as the ballots are secret. However, there is nothing holding back countries such as Canada from doing so. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, an NGO tasked with monitoring the performance of the multilateral body, said Canada could also publicly guarantee it won't vote for human-rights violators.

"One thing we can expect from the Canadian government is … to at least declare that they will vote according to the criteria of elections, which requires that they consider the human-rights record of that country. That sufficiently would say a lot," Mr. Neuer.

Conservative MP Peter Kent said Canada should say how it will vote in the upcoming election, even if it threatens its UN ambitions. As a part of the Liberal government's effort to re-engage with the UN, Canada is bidding for one of 10 non-permanent, rotating Security Council seats in 2021-2022.

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"I think it would be helpful and encouraging for the government of Canada to state publicly how it will vote, even though that would probably earn them a negative vote in their campaign for the Security Council," Mr. Kent said.

NDP MP Murray Rankin said it is "appalling" that Canada would even consider voting to include human-rights abusers on the council. Asked if the government would guarantee Canada would not do so, Liberal MP Michael Levitt said he would relay the message from Wednesday's press conference to Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion.

"I think that the human-rights records of those that are seeking a seat on the Human Rights Council have to absolutely be considered," Mr. Levitt said.

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