Rights and Democracy: Friends in high places, or not

The foreign-affairs committee runs out of patience.

I wasn’t going to write about what follows, but what the heck. Since I am now officially not the worst news Rights and Democracy will receive today, I might as well.

Last night Rights and Democracy handed out its John Humphrey Award to a Venezuelan group called Provea. By all accounts, including those of observers who are not fond of R&D’s current management, Provea richly deserves this award, named after the Canadian author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They had a big shindig over at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau to celebrate.

Weeks before the ceremony, some at R&D seemed preoccupied with achieving an appropriate turnout. Brad Farquhar, a board member who previously ran as a Conservative candidate in Saskatchewan, sent out the invite to several Ottawa acquaintainces with this top:

“FYI — I hope you can attend this event. More conservatively-minded people need to be engaged in the discussion of human rights and democracy promotion so we don’t leave this space to others by default.”

I don’t see anything nefarious about Farquhar’s email. One function of members of any board is to drum up support for the organization’s activities. Farquhar has a lot of contacts in this town.

Unfortunately this time it didn’t work well. There were no Conservative members of Parliament at yesterday’s event at the Museum of Civilization. That’s largely due to a confidence vote in the Commons that ended shortly after 6 p.m. But even before that vote was scheduled, no member of the Cabinet was ever scheduled to attend.

I’d heard that might be the case so on the weekend I asked. “The Guest of Honour on this occasion will be Mr. Dean Allison, Chair of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development,” R&D communications director Stéphane Bourgon told me.

That’s odd. Past recipients of the R&D John Humphrey Award could usually expect a meeting with the foreign minister while in town, and at least a junior minister at the ceremony. Maria Minna attended one such ceremony when she was minister for CIDA in 2001. Peter Kent was there to give another speech at the 2008 ceremony. Why did the government always plan to give Provea a wide berth?

One theory making the rounds in Ottawa and Montreal is that it has everything to do with Provea’s opposition to the extradition of a member of Spain’s separatist group ETA from Venezuela to Spain.

ETA is a listed terrorist organization in Canada.

The irony starts to get a little rich here, because the whole mess at Rights and Democracy began when the organization’s management gave funding for specific projects to three groups in the Middle East, including Al-Haq. As Aurel Braun, the increasingly contested chairman of the R&D board, wrote in January, Al-Haq is said to have links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and  “the PFLP is a listed terrorist organization in Canada.”

Do I think Provea’s work on behalf of suspected ETA members invalidates its candidacy for the John Humphrey Award? No way. I think that down on the ground where the fight to defend basic human dignity matters because such things are never guaranteed, things can get a little complex.

But then, I didn’t flush a million taxpayer dollars out the door trying to make R&D atone for giving money to an organization, and make its links to listed terrorist organizations my pretext for all the fuss. Aurel Braun did.

And now, under his leadership, R&D has given its most important prize to a group that advocates on behalf of a presumed member of a listed terrorist organization.

And last week all they could find to show up was a committee chairman who is not a minister of the Crown. And last night the committee chairman didn’t show up. And today the committee he chairs “ordered” Aurel Braun to account for his activities this year.

It’s all closing in.

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