Will Canada put human rights first during the Minister’s trip to Middle East?

By Amnesty Canada Secretary General Alex Neve

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s current trip through the Middle East offers a tremendous opportunity to press a strong message that increased respect for human rights – by all governments and by all parties to the region’s various conflicts – provides the road map for lasting peace and security. It is also an opportunity to restore Canada’s standing in the region as a determined champion of human rights; a reputation that has been considerably strained in recent years. 

Canada has staked out a clear human rights position in the Middle East, marked by unflinching reticence to criticize the Israeli government.  Along the way Canada has come to be seen as intensely partisan and even polarizing.  This is the Minister’s chance to demonstrate that the only side that Canada will take in the Middle East is the side of human rights. 

In Jordan that includes the immense difficulties the country faces coping with a flood of Syrian refugees.  There are mounting concerns that the Jordanians have been turning away Palestinian refugees coming from Syria.  Canada’s announcement over the weekend that it will provide increased aid to Jordan to assist in easing the burden was very welcome. 

In the United Arab Emirates an ongoing trial of 94 prisoners on state security charges has been marked by concerns about torture and unfair proceedings; part of an increasingly repressive campaign in the country that has targeted Islamists, liberals, activists, and scholars.

In Qatar the arrest of two human rights activists who were among signatories to a letter protesting France’s intervention in Mali, has sent a chilling message.  The government has also been slow to embrace reforms to tackle human trafficking and forced labour of migrant workers, looking down the road to the 2022 World Cup.

Bahrain has faced a full blown human rights crisis.  Hundreds of thousands took to the streets and to social media in 2011, inspired by the peaceful protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.  The Bahraini government’s crackdown was harsh and swift.  Two years later prisoners of conscience remain behind bars and activists continue to be jailed.

While in Bahrain it is crucial that the Minister takes up the case of Canadian citizen Naser al-Raas who was imprisoned and badly tortured for a month in 2011.  Naser al-Raas is back in Canada; but there has been no justice for what he endured.  There has been no effort to identify the individuals responsible for his torture.  Canada should demand a full investigations leading to accountability and redress for Mr. al-Raas.

In Cyprus there is growing alarm about the country’s approach to refugees and migrants, who are often detained for months and years in abysmal conditions.  Many are held even after court orders that they be released. 

It is of course during the Minister’s visits to Israel and the West Bank that his words about human rights will be most closely scrutinized.  It is so essential that this time there be a strong message to the Israeli government that Canada, which has consistently demonstrated it is a close friend and ally, expects real change when it comes to respect for the rights of Palestinians.

And there is nowhere better to start than underscoring the necessity for justice, truth and reparation for past human rights violations, including war crimes, committed by both parties.  The years of impunity, be it for war crimes during the 2006 South Lebanon War, the 2008/2009 Gaza War or, most recently, the eight-day military escalation in Gaza and southern Israel in November 2012, build on each other.

When there are no consequences for the rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants, the rockets continue.  But equally true, when there is no accountability for war crimes committed by Israeli forces, documented by numerous international experts and organizations, those violations repeat.  Canada can and should press the Israeli government and Palestinian officials to commit to a justice agenda.

Insecurity and instability in the Middle East is rooted in deeply-rooted disregard for human rights.  At every stop, and to all governments, the Minister should lead with the expectation that human rights must now come first.