Opinion and Editorial

Is Canada aware of its Human Rights double standards?

George Abraham
Filed on June 17, 2007

EVEN as Prime Minister Stephen Harper was admonishing Russian President Vladimir Putin on human rights, a bunch of activists in his own backyard were criticising his government for adopting a double standard when it comes to walking the talk. They say his government is siding with a Canadian oil company that is accused of committing

Mr Harper's exchange with Mr Putin was one of the more memorable face-offs at the recent G-8 summit held in Germany. When the Canadian leader brought up the issue of declining freedoms in Russia, adding for good measure that G-8 membership was a privilege dependent on 'democratic behaviour,' a belligerent Mr Putin apparently shot back by pointing out that Canada was not immune from criticism either. Although the Russian leader made no specific references, Canada has been at the receiving end on issues such as the treatment of its Aboriginal population and the transfer of Afghan detainees by Canadian soldiers in Kandahar province.

This is how Mr Harper characterised his exchange: 'President Putin pointed out to me, didn't hesitate to point out to me that there's various reports... that Canada is sometimes criticised on some human rights and democratic issues from time to time. ... And really my reply to that general line of discussion is that that's fine as long as we all accept the legitimacy of that criticism, we're all prepared to listen to it and be open to it and allow that kind of debate to occur in our societies. That's the real test, not whether we're perfect but whether criticism can happen, and is tolerated and is part of the political process.' Canada —a mixed bunch of politicians, church leaders and legal minds —were finessing a joint statement that drew attention to the contradiction inherent in Canada's moralising on the international stage and the way it has dealt with allegations that have dogged Calgary-based Talisman Energy Inc for close to eight years. The company itself has since pulled out from Sudan, but its conduct there and the charge that it abetted the ethnic conflict in the south of the country has refused to go away, despite a corporate blitz to redeem the company's image.

When the allegations first surfaced in 1999, soon after Talisman bought a minority stake in the Greater Nile Oil Project, the Canadian government set up the Harker Commission to investigate charges that the company was providing logistical and material support to the Sudanese government against rebels in the south. The commission found some merit in the charges, but did not recommend any penalties against Talisman because, it its opinion, Canadian law did not extend to the activities of one of its corporations in a foreign land.

The coalition that is now ranged against Talisman includes former members of the Harker Commission. Their main thrust is that the company allowed its facilities to be used by government soldiers who were engaged in ethnic cleansing. In their words, this amounts to a 'war crime,' thereby qualifying it as an international outrage that is exempt from the normal jurisdictional rules that govern lesser evils. The universality of both war crimes and human rights abuses —including the innovative 'responsibility to protect' principle —have long been championed by Canada and it is this apparent contradiction that people such as former cabinet minister David Kilgour and Ottawa MP Paul Dewar find strange.

All of this would not amount to much more than hot air but for a court action that was independently launched by a Sudanese church group two years ago before a US court in New York. This case has become a testing ground for the larger issue of universal jurisdiction because it involves a Canadian company's actions in an African nation, brought before a US judge. While the plaintiffs themselves have lost twice, the case is still under appeal.

Both sides agree that there are important principles at stake, with the Canadian government asserting before the New York court that it can have no jurisdiction because it involves a foreign company that operated in a third country. The human rights activists in Canada, however, question the government's willingness to spring to Talisman's defence, while refusing to hold them accountable under Canadian law. Talisman's company secretary, M. Jacqueline Sheppard, has been quoted as saying that there are 'lots of novel theories of liability embedded in the case.'

'Canada is seeking to block the court action in the US on the basis of jurisdiction, but offers no indication it would be willing to do anything about it in Canada,' according to a member of the group supporting the New York lawsuit, Prof René Provost, director of the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. The MP from Ottawa, Mr Dewar, says, 'Canada is on the wrong side of the street in this case,' adding that it should allow the suit to take its own course without taking sides.

The rallying of support for the original charges against Talisman comes at a time when Canada is prosecuting its first case under a new law that governs war crimes and crimes against humanity. The accused in that case is Désiré Munyaneza (40) has been charged with participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which witnessed the slaughter of 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Several women who say they were raped by the failed refugee applicant have been flown in from Rwanda to testify in a Québec court. Ironically, the Canadian prosecution rests its case on the principle of 'universal jurisdiction.'

George Abraham is a journalist based in Ottawa, Canada

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