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Canada gets ‘pass’ on free speech in U.S. human rights report

By David Jones      

Although the HRR no longer grades countries even with opaque language, analysts can easily intuit Canadians are among the world’s fortunate, writes David Jones.

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One of the hardy perennials in U.S. diplomacy is the annual release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which has struggled for years and now decades to document human rights abuses and failures for almost 200 entities .

In theory, these reports are congressionally mandated for release around Feb. 25. But, as is so often the case in Washington, delay is flavour of the day. Additionally, release is contingent on the secretary of state’s availability to make a scene-setting, albeit brief launch statement.  The secretary, however, is a peripatetic creature for whom the human rights report (HRR) is, at best, a secondary priority.  And this year, although State Department officials prepared the HRR for timely release, it was delayed, delayed, delayed.  Its non-release moved past “March madness,” through Stanley Cup finals, NBA championships, well into the professional baseball season and beginning of summer.

Delay was so protracted that its non-release became the story rather than whatever it might contain.  At the 100-day mark, Senator Ted Cruz and others publicly demanded its release.  And conspiracy explanations mounted.  To be sure, Secretary John Kerry and Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Thomas Malinowski were racking up frequent flyer miles.  Moreover, the secretary’s serious biking injury was another delay factor.  But cynics suggested the U.S. government feared HRR’s intense criticism of Tehran might throw Iranian mullahs into a hissy fit affecting the nuclear negotiations.  And on a lesser note, blunt criticisms of Cuba might seem curious given our recent “opening” to the Castros.

Nevertheless, whether it was the rare coincidence of Kerry and Malinowski simultaneously in town (with the secretary having 10 minutes to spare), political pressure that was becoming counterproductive (even given the administration’s preference to giving Republicans a “Trudeau salute” rather than respond to their demands), or a conclusion that what was said about Iran would have no distinguishing effect, the HRR was released on June 25.

The secretary offered a cameo, eight-minute presentation before hobbling offstage on his “sticks”; he took no questions and blew off a shouted question about Iran saying he was “always hopeful.”  In textual remarks, he excoriated miscreants such as North Korea and Syria, blasted both terrorism and wars violating human rights, but ignored Iran (once part of the “Axis of Evil”), Cuba, and China.  He noted with “humility” U.S. failures in racial discord and unrest. 

Malinowski fielded the hot potatoes with a separate statement and Q&A.  Regarding Iran/Cuba, he noted “engagement was not endorsement.”  However, only in response to questions, did he comment on Israel/Palestine; Saudi Arabia/Bahrain; Egypt; or China (which denounced the HRR and issued a countervailing report on U.S. human rights failures).

Although much anticipated, the HRR almost instantly disappeared from media.  Mentioned in Washington Post and New York Times (inside pages), coverage of Obamacare’s constitutionality and national legalization for gay marriage swamped HRR commentary.

Specifically, the Canada 2014 HRR has expanded somewhat over the 2013 edition (approximately 9,700 words versus approximately 8,900).  A side-by-side analysis quickly identifies considerable “legacy language” driven by the reality that detailed instructions for creating the reports often results in closely parallel annual texts as circumstances have not changed.  However, HRR prose remains leaden; it is, after all, a government document. 

New guidance for HRR preparation discusses “female genital mutilation/cutting,” expands LGBT abuse coverage, and adds “Discrimination with Respect to Employment or Occupation.”

Aboriginals’ problems receive special attention, notably their disproportionate representation in prisons, female victimization reflected in abuse, and child neglect.  Indeed, the HRR directs more attention to aboriginal and worker rights issues than to any other topics. Ottawa can ignore the UN Special rapporteur’s complaints of “continuing crisis” for aboriginals.

Separately, the HRR notes slightly reduced instances of anti-Semitism, (but identifies no anti-Islamic activity). 

Longstanding anglophone-francophone concerns on language restrictions respectively within and outside Quebec get no mention. 

Canada continues to get a “pass” regarding free speech restrictions (“The Supreme Court has ruled that the government may limit free speech in the name of goals such as ending discrimination, ensuring social harmony, or promoting gender equality.  It also has ruled the benefits of limiting hate speech and promoting equality are sufficient to outweigh the freedom of speech.”)  Likewise, there is no analysis of the vagaries and abuses of federal and provincial human rights commissions or their chilling effect on free speech.

Nevertheless, although the HRR no longer grades countries even with opaque language, analysts can easily intuit Canadians are among the world’s fortunate, able to elect leadership freely, speak, write, assemble, and worship in peace under essentially honest government.

Canada remains one of the “good students” drawing no media comment.

David Jones is a former political counsellor who worked at the U.S. Embassy from 1992-96. Mr. Jones was also a member of the INF negotiating team and published The Reagan-Gorbachev Arms Control Breakthrough, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the treaty signing in December 2012.
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