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Jeffrey Simpson

What a tangled web PM weaves in promoting democracy abroad Add to ...

The crisis at Rights & Democracy, the Montreal-based human-rights group funded by Ottawa, reflects two wider problems associated with the Harper government.

The first is the unconditional support the government gives not just Israel - support that all Canadian parties correctly offer - but with a certain view of Israel held by right-wing parties in that country that form the current Israeli government.

So unconditional is that support that it can be said Canada under Stephen Harper has become the most uncritical supporter of that view of Israel in the world, outside of Israel. Even the Obama administration has tried (unsuccessfully) to nudge along the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Not Canada, however.

The second is a long-standing lack of focus in Canada's promotion of democracy and human rights abroad, a problem that predated the Harper government but has persisted. The Rights & Democracy crisis is a reflection of that lack of focus.

Rights & Democracy was created during the Mulroney years to remain at arm's length from the government to promote human rights, civil society and democratic development in other countries. Its current budget is about $11-million.

The Conservatives, however, appointed to the board some of those unreconstructed defenders of a certain view of Israel, and they began to throw their weight around, objecting to grants made to groups they thought had it in for Israel. (Two grants went to Al-Haq and Al Mezan; the new members believed that these Palestinian groups were enemies of Israel and that money sent to Al Mezan might end up with Hamas, the elected government of Gaza, but deemed by Canada and Israel to be an organization that uses terror. The third grant went to B'Tselem, an Israeli group critical of Israel's human-rights record.)

The new members made life awful for the then-president; the board split into factions, and almost all the staff demanded the resignation of the Harper appointees.

When something like that happens - the staff demanding the board's resignation - there's obviously a deep sickness in the organization. The new acting director has suspended three of the dissident staff members, a break-in occurred at the organization's headquarters, and respected board members have resigned in protest against the action of the Harper appointees.

Such an upheaval has various sources, but one is the Israeli agenda brought by the Harper appointees - an agenda that clashed with the one previously pursued by Rights & Democracy. This agenda is the Harper government's agenda. It has manifested, not just at Rights & Democracy, but in funding decisions at other NGOs felt by the government to be unsympathetic to its view of Israel.

Rights & Democracy has its own troubles but, in a wider sense, so does Canada's efforts to promote human rights, civil society and democracy abroad.

We have a plethora of agencies, government departments, NGOs and arm's-length groups such as Rights & Democracy all doing this kind of work, with varying mandates and degrees of success. A parliamentary committee looked at this landscape a while back and produced a deeply disappointing report. It had an idea for yet another organization to promote political parties that became the basis for a study recently submitted to the government.

The report, with a $70-million price tag, has been sitting on the desk of Steven Fletcher, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, for some time now. Presumably, the government is balking at the cost, and NGOs are balking at the very idea, as many of them made clear in a recent meeting with the minister. Mind you, there's enormous turf-protecting that goes on in the democracy promotion business.

The Conservatives have been promising something new in promoting democracy abroad since they were first elected. The Democracy Council is all we have. It allows representatives of all these agencies and groups to sit around and talk.

Canada's whole effort lacks centralized focus. Very little co-ordination occurs. None of the groups has a profile (except for the unhappy kind now associated with Rights & Democracy). The last thing such an unfocused effort needs is yet another institution, this one to promote political parties.

Canada needs a major umbrella organization - call it Democracy Canada - that would be arm's length and non-partisan with a mandate to co-ordinate and expand what's being done, with a budget taken from the Canadian International Development Agency.

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