Five human rights issues that need urgent attention in 2019

Montreal hosts RightsCity on June 3. In advance of the conference, participants share their views on the current gaps when it comes to addressing human rights.

Mustafa Karim, a taxi driver, is pictured in front of his destroyed house in Aleppo's Salaheddine district, Syria, April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

The global fight against mass atrocities, human rights concerns in China, democracy under threat worldwide, the silencing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Cameroon’s unfolding catastrophe — the list of urgent human rights discussions to be had today is long.

Currently in its third iteration, the #RightsCity conference, which will be held on June 3 in Montreal, aims to discuss those challenges, at a time when the liberal international order appears to be fraying.

This year, particular emphasis has been placed on the role of prominent activists, journalists and global human rights leaders, and of Canada as well. The conference brings together some of the world’s top human rights leaders and thinkers, including: Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz; Canadian retired lieutenant-general and senator Roméo Dallaire; Iranian women's rights leader Shaparak Shajarizadeh; Chinese dissident and former political prisoner Yang Jianli; and former special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect, Jennifer Welsh.

The event is hosted by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, in partnership with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, Amnesty International, the Canadian International Council and the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies. (The event is expected to be livestreamed via CPAC.)

Here, some of those involved with the event shed light on the human rights issues they believe are most important to address in order to ensure global stability.

1. Where’s our defence of the global institutions and mechanisms to protect human rights?

Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

At a time when all international norms and laws related to human rights are under attack, we are witnessing a historic coordinated effort to undermine the effectiveness of multilateral institutions that were designed to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes.

The ramifications of emboldened authoritarian states unfortunately can be seen in the Syria conflict. Consider that Russia has vetoed 12 UN Security Council resolutions to hold the Assad regime to account for large-scale human rights abuses. Russia, China and Iran have not only defended the Assad regime diplomatically; they have openly shielded a government that has used chemical weapons against its own population, used starvation as a weapon of war and tortured tens of thousands of civilians in jails and prisons across the country.

Western governments have been incredibly weak vis a vis Syria, giving Russia and the Assad regime free reign. Seeing the paralysis of the UN Security Council, 44 NGOs called for the body to work together and stop further attacks against civilians and hospitals in Idlib. Unfortunately, Russia ignored the request.

"Western governments have been incredibly weak vis a vis Syria, giving Russia and the Assad regime free reign."

Not to be overlooked is China, who has continued to violate the human rights of its citizens. Approximately one million members of its Uyghur minority are currently being held in “reeducation camps.” The Chinese government has weaponized artificial intelligence as part of a massive surveillance campaign, which is Orwellian in nature. China has also provided diplomatic cover to Myanmar by openly supporting the government’s military operations against its Rohingya minority, a mass atrocity crime that resulted in over 700,000 people forced to flee to Bangladesh.

In his recent article, The End of Human Rights?, David Rieff rightly observed, “the global balance of power has tilted away from governments committed to human rights norms and toward those indifferent or actively hostile to them.” The Responsibility to Protect, the Genocide Convention, the International Criminal Court and international humanitarian law all appear to be part of the liberal international order that authoritarian states would like to dismantle. It is imperative that democratic states and civil society work together to preserve what we have built.

Kyle Matthews is the executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

2. Crimes against humanity have been committed in Cameroon. Let’s not turn away.

— Pearl Eliadis, Canadian lawyer and senior fellow of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

Cameroon is experiencing a largely ignored human rights catastrophe in the North West and South West regions of the country, home to most of its Anglophone population. Ten percent of that population has been forcibly displaced, making the tiny country the unlikely sixth largest source of displaced persons in the world. More than 200 villages have been attacked and burned. UN sources say 1.3 million people are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance.

Noted author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie referred to it in The New York Times as Cameroon’s “carnage.” International and domestic civil society groups, media, and human rights defenders have been trying to get the international community to pay attention.

Until very recently, they have failed. The crisis has been shrugged off as the inevitable consequence of internal conflict.

As Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council said recently, there have been “no systematic mediation efforts, no large relief programme, little media interest and too little pressure on the parties to stop attacking civilians.” This conflict, like many on the African continent, has roots in European interference and risks garnering little attention until the worst happens.

This is the wrong response.

The international community can and should be doing more. The evidence from Cameroon offers an opportunity to translate clear early warning signs into early action to prevent further escalation.

Canada should also be doing more. That is why the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights created a unique Cameroonian-Canadian partnership, culminating in the report Cameroon’s Unfolding Catastrophe, to be launched at #RightsCity 2019.

Significantly, the report concludes that reasonable grounds exist to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Cameroon. We underscore the need for immediate action to prevent further atrocities, protect civilian populations and seek accountability. Mediated talks and independent investigations are critical components of any successful solution.

Pearl Eliadis is a Canadian lawyer who has worked extensively in multilateral governance and human rights initiatives in Africa and Asia since 2000. She is a co-author of the report Cameroon’s Unfolding Catastrophe. Pearl also serves as a senior fellow of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

3. A call for a new generation of Canadian human rights promotion.

— Arthur Graham, Canadian lawyer and head of the rule of law and human rights department at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Mission to Serbia

Canada can be a much more effective champion, per capita and dollar for dollar, of human rights and good governance under the rule of law. Global Affairs Canada (GAC) can position Canada in that leading role with no additional burden on the taxpayer.

How? Easy: just tap into the rich experience of Canadian experts who are already doing this work!

The rule of law underpins our human rights objectives, including those under the Feminist International Assistance Policy. We agree with the OECD’s 2018 Development Assistance Committee’s peer review that GAC should disseminate strategic policy tools for each priority action area of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP). As a foundation for the FIAP, and for other areas, the first action area for an implementation strategy should be inclusive governance, including democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Canadian practitioners today are in the vanguard in promoting just societies in countries in transition, mostly with no Canadian branding or support. They are sought after for their unique comparative advantages: bilingualism, bijuralism, and an inherited knack for working with the heavy lifters of governance assistance, notably the European Union and the United States.

"GACs best course is to bring seasoned practitioners in from the field to work with our centres of policy research and innovation."

GAC should make use of this underutilized resource, rather than continuing to let our unique strengths be harnessed by others. Canada’s strategic approach could, instead, play to our strengths, based on our commitment to multilateralism as a lead player on teams with intersecting values: the UN family, of course, but also the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, la Francophonie, the Commonwealth, the International Development Law Organization and others.

GACs best course is to bring seasoned practitioners in from the field to work with our centres of policy research and innovation. Together, they could produce a field-ready strategy, which combines independent Canadian policy-making with the cost-effectiveness of multilateral program delivery for a new generation of Canadian human rights promotion for FIAP and the SDGs.

Arthur Graham is a Canadian lawyer who has been delivering governance assistance in the areas of rule of law and human rights, with the UN, OSCE and bilateral agencies, since 1999. Currently he is the head of the rule of law and human rights department at the OSCE Mission to Serbia.

4. Do not underestimate the importance, and fragility, of multinational democracy.

Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House

My organization, Freedom House, publishes an annual report on the state of democracy, called Freedom in the World. The report provides a snapshot overview on the state of freedom in a country; it also highlights the reasons for a country’s improvement or, as is usually the case these days, decline.

Freedom House has identified a global reversal for the past 13 years. Elections are less likely to be fair; press freedom is under attack; corruption is pervasive.

One less discussed development is the growing mistreatment of racial and religious minorities. Of the 195 countries that Freedom House assesses, only five have an excellent rating for a category that measures “equality under the law.” While some countries are taking steps to limit corruption, pushing back against attacks on press freedom, and working to make elections more honest, prejudice, discrimination and aggression against minorities keep getting worse.

In dictatorships or autocracies, the consequences can be traumatic. We’ve seen this in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Myanmar and, most recently, China, where Uyghurs have been sent to concentration camps en masse.

Even more disturbing is the intensification of campaigns against minorities in the world’s democracies. In country after country, immigrants have been excluded, demonized, made targets of political vitriol, beaten and occasionally killed.

Especially disturbing is the erosion of the institutions that strengthen a multinational society in the United States. Despite its history of slavery and legal discrimination, the United States has stood as a model, however flawed, of a society that seemed to have found a way to integrate people from different cultures into its social fabric.

The American template is tarnished today. Yet even in an environment in which non-white immigrants are treated by some political leaders as second-class citizens, the US still has lessons it can teach others. First, policies are crucial. Equality under the law must be enshrined in constitutions. Discrimination must be made illegal, and laws must be enforced.

More important, minorities must be able to pursue their rights through normal political participation. This can be achieved through parties formed to represent particular groups —ethnic parties. Much better, however, if minorities are able to participate through the mainstream parties. Politics segregated by race or ethnicity will likely lead to resentment and suspicion.

We are discovering that multinational democracy is a great, but fragile, achievement. But while the dynamics of multinational democracy are complex, prohibiting discrimination and opening the door to political representation are ideal places to start.

Michael J. Abramowitz is president of Freedom House. Before joining Freedom House in February 2017, he was director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Levine Institute for Holocaust Education, and was previously the national editor and then White House correspondent for the Washington Post.

5. Above all, the common thread — and need — is fairness.

Jeremy Kinsman, Canada’s former ambassador to the European Union and High Commissioner to Britain

An ensemble of essential human rights are linked together within virtuous circles of accountability, transparency, the rule of law and inclusivity. Once established, they need constant gardening.

“Stability” isn’t the goal — dictators promise stability and protection from change. For many in the world, such a stable status quo is unfair.

"We can’t change their circumstances, but we must defend their human rights defenders’ rights without exception."

It was lack of “fairness” that made protestors occupy Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Kiev’s Maidan and New York’s Wall Street, and march in Daraa, Syria. It’s also what made Rohingyas flee Myanmar. They sought an end to the unfairness of corruption, insider privilege, rampant disparities and arbitrary punishment.

Citizens do look to leaders to protect their security — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi likens his role to that of a security guard at an apartment’s gate. But authoritarians exaggerate security threats by inciting popular blame and fear of someone else, a minority, a foreigner, a refugee, a foe.

Populist nationalists exploit the sense of unfairness to deepen social divisions and fear, to gain power. They abhor compromise, which inclusive democracy needs. They slaughter truth.

Our government allies itself with like-minded democracies to defend the needs of open societies.

Apart from being better examples of fair and inclusive societies ourselves, how do we legitimately help others?

Their trajectories are their own, not ours. We can’t change their circumstances, but we must defend their human rights defenders’ rights without exception. It will only work if we lean in via our own civil society, in media, as scholars and citizens, insisting on fairness and honesty all the way.

Supporting the efforts of civil society elsewhere, citizen to citizen, isn’t a geo-political impulse. It is what former Czech president Vaclav Havel called the “venerable practice of human solidarity” that recognizes our shared human condition, a universal wish for fairness and justice, and our growing collective dependency on international norms and cooperation for our protection.

Jeremy Kinsman has served as a Canadian ambassador to Russia (1992-96), Italy (1996-2000), and the European Union in Brussels (2002-2006), and as High Commissioner to the United Kingdom (2000-2002) .