Amnesty chief blasts Harper on death penalty
Salil Shetty, Secretary General for Amnesty International, addresses the role that Canada should play internationally on human rights issues in the Middle East, on economic, social and cultural rights, and in the global protection of Indigenous Peoples during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 31, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Press
Published Friday, April 1, 2011 6:13AM EDT
OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's personal support for the death penalty is "outlandish" and out of step with the world at large, says the head of Amnesty International.
Moreover, Harper's musing -- made in a media interview in January -- that he personally favours the death penalty in some instances ignores the fact that no proof exists that executions deter crime, Amnesty Secretary General Salil Shetty told The Canadian Press in an interview Thursday.
"It's just odd ... on the one hand it's just so outlandish a statement that's so out of sync with the reality of where the world is," said Shetty, the London-based Amnesty chief.
Shetty was in Ottawa to release a scathing report that accused the government of eroding Canada's global reputation as a human rights champion.
He said the timing of the report was not coincidental -- the organization wanted to generate discussion of Canada's declining standing in the world during a federal election campaign.
"For us, human rights should be a central plank in this election," he said.
"After all, the world is in the middle of a human-rights revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, so it's very important all five political parties make their positions very clear."
The report does not specifically name the Harper Conservatives but it raises many frequent criticisms of Tory foreign policy, including uncompromising support for Israel in the Middle East and the defunding of non-governmental agencies, such as Kairos, that have publicly criticized the Tories or provided aid to Palestinians.
The report also notes that Canada has scaled back its efforts at the United Nations to work towards the abolition of the death penalty. In 2007, 2008 and 2010, Canada refused to co-sponsor resolutions that would call for a global moratorium on executions.
In January, Harper gave a gramatically awkward answer when asked by the CBC about the hot-button issue.
"I personally think there are times when capital punishment is appropriate. But I've also committed that I'm not, you know, in the next Parliament, I'm not, no plans to bring that issue forward," he said.
Harper's political opponents cited the remarks as an example that he has a hidden agenda. Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976 -- and the issue has remained off the political agenda.
"It's one thing to say, I would consider it under certain circumstances, but the question is: Why? What's the rationale? What's the basis? There's no, absolutely no context. Why would he want to say or do that unless there's an expectation that it would bring some political gains," Shetty said in the interview.
Shetty said his organization's latest death penalty report showed that 139 countries have abandoned executions. The only notable exception in the developed world is the United States.
"There's no correlation between (the) death penalty and reduced crime," he said. "I'm not quite sure why the prime minister would want to have second thoughts about it. It's not based on any sort empirical evidence."
The Amnesty report calls on party leaders to use the federal election campaign to restore Canada's commitment to rights at home and abroad.
The report said there has been an "erosion" of Canada's past policies, including a "principled and non-partisan reputation in the Middle East" because the government's "unflinching refusal" to criticize Israel's human-rights record has eroded Canada's reputation in the Middle East.
"Serious violations committed by the Israeli government have on occasion been described as 'a measured response' and Canada's voice was noticeably moderate when hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils faced grave peril in early 2009," the report said.
Harper used the phrase "measured response" in July 2006 to describe Israel's decision to bomb Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah terrorists based in that country.
That comment provoked the ire of Arab and Muslim Canadians and was widely interpreted as a sign the Conservatives had begun taking sides in the Middle East conflict.
"Traditionally Canada approached those debates in a careful and principled manner and garnered a reputation as non-partisan," the report states.
"That reputation has, however, been completely eroded in recent years as Canada has now adopted a policy of consistently voting against resolutions at both the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly that criticize Israel's human rights record," it adds.
"That has been the case even in the midst of UN criticism of the widespread human rights violations that occurred during the Israeli military campaigns in south Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009."
The government has defended its Middle East stance, saying it believes in a non-violent end to the dispute and the creation of a separate Palestinian state that would live peacefully with its Israeli neighbour.
The Conservatives had been given advance notice of some of the report's contents but did not reply.
At home, the report points to "devastating cuts" in funding to Canadian agencies such as Kairos and the Canadian Council for International Co-operation for publicly disagreeing with government policy.
"On the home front, Canada's human rights movement feels under siege," the report states.
"Never before have Canadian organizations worried so much that there might be consequences if they disagree publicly with the government on a human rights concern."
The report also notes the government's decision to not repatriate Toronto-born convicted terrorist Omar Khadr from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
But the report also offers criticism in areas where the Conservatives and Liberals have been aligned on foreign policy in recent years.
It criticizes the defeat in Parliament last fall of a bill that would have created mandatory accountability for Canadian corporations abroad. The bill died with the support of several high-profile Liberal opposition members.
The report also criticizes the "fluctuations and unevenness" in Canada's relations with China over the last 20 years that have led to an inconsistent approach in raising human rights concerns with its communist leaders.
Between 1993 and 2005, the Liberal governments of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin faced accusations that they were more interested in pursuing trade with China than pushing a rights agenda.
"If you're outside Canada you just have high expectations from Canada on human rights," Shetty said.
"The thing is there seems to be quite a big gap between what Canadians think their values are, and their government's positions are, and the reality. It needs a big course correction in the way the government operates. It's a not a question of which political party is in power."