The tangled tale of Rights and Democracy

By Kim Nursall

The bells are tolling for Rights and Democracy. This government-funded advocacy group has been embroiled in a soap-opera plot ever since the organization’s then-president Remy Beauregard approved three small grants for Middle East-based human rights groups in January 2009. The ensuing chaos has featured resignations, suspensions, dismissals, the death of Beauregard, an office burglary and questionable Conservative appointments that potentially undermine the organization’s arm’s-length operational capacity.

The grants that precipitated this bedlam were approved following the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip in January 2009, which, according to an Amnesty International report, featured both Israeli and Palestinian human rights abuses. Two of the grants from Rights and Democracy went to Palestinian organizations, Al Haq and Al Mezan, while the last was distributed to B’Tselem, an Israeli group critical of Israel’s rights record. The board’s chairman, Aurel Braun, along with other staunchly pro-Israel board members, were exceedingly critical of the grants and denounced Beauregard — even going so far as to send an evaluation of his performance to the Privy Council Office.

Rights and Democracy devolved into two factions — those loyal to Beauregard and those loyal to Braun. The ensuing vitriolic power-struggle manacled any attempt by the organization’s members to, ironically enough, promote rights and democracy. In July, David Matas and Michael Van Pelt were appointed to the board, tipping the scale in Braun’s favour. The new situation escalated the fighting and culminated in the dismissal of Guido Riveras at this year’s January 7 meeting, which then precipitated the resignation of Payam Akhavan, a McGill law professor, and Dr. Sima Samar, former deputy president of Afghanistan and noted human-rights campaigner. Beauregard died of a heart-attack later that same night.

The drama didn’t end there. During Beauregard’s funeral, two of the organization’s staff had their laptops stolen from the office; three board executives, including Braun, have been called upon to resign; three senior staff members have been suspended; and three managers have been fired for insubordination. The dismantling of Rights and Democracy was further accentuated when Gerard Latulippe, a former Canadian Alliance candidate and adviser to then-leader Stockwell Day, was appointed as the group’s newest president, showing that when it comes to keeping things at “arm’s-length,” the Conservative government has very short arms.

Rights and Democracy began in 1988 with the appointment of Ed Broadbent by none other than Brian Mulroney and its arm’s-length status was seen as paramount, since Ottawa did not want to come under fire if the group funded rights organizations critical of foreign governments. Its descent into factionalism and the inherent divisiveness of Middle East politics, however, has undermined its ability to provide an independent approach for promoting and securing human rights. Rights should never be a partisan issue and human rights abuses should be recognized and challenged regardless of which side commits the crimes. By allowing Rights and Democracy to become a pro-Israel rights group, organizations such as Al Haq and Al Mezan will undoubtedly be denied funding that is crucial for them to fulfill their mandate of securing human rights in an area that desperately needs it. Neither Israel nor Palestine is innocent, but allowing the transgressions of one to be ignored for partisan reasons is, quite frankly, disgusting. If Rights and Democracy cannot live up to the simple principles evoked by its name then it should be disbanded. The world doesn’t need another soap opera.

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