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UN commissioner critical of Quebec law

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The long, sad history of the United Nations’ singling out Israel for criticism while ignoring serious, systemic human rights violations elsewhere stopped being news long ago, if it ever was.

What is news, however, is the recent penchant of some UN agencies to give Canada a taste of the same.

In the June 19 National Post, Graeme Hamilton drew attention to one such event. The day before, in Geneva, Navi Pillay, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, delivered the opening statement to the 20th special session of the Human Rights Council.

What caught Hamilton’s attention was Pillay’s singling out Canada, specifically Quebec, for its controversial Bill 78, which stipulates conditions on how student-led protests in the province are to be conducted, and imposes fines for violations.

About midway through her address, Pillay said: “Moves to restrict freedom of assembly in many parts of the world are alarming. In the context of student protests, I am disappointed by the new legislation passed in Quebec that restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly.”

As Hamilton noted, given Pillay’s alarm, all she found worthy of mention was Quebec, not true prohibitions on “freedom of assembly” in non-democratic lands like China, Cuba, Iran, Saudi Arabia and many other places. Regarding just one such omission, Hamilton wrote that Pillay “had no time for the Tibetan herder who died last week after setting himself on fire to protest Chinese repression, the 30th Tibetan to suffer such a fate since 2009.”

Hamilton cited Hillel Neuer, the head of UN Watch, an NGO that monitors bias at the United Nations. According to Hamilton, Neuer claimed that when he demonstrates outside the UN’s Geneva headquarters, he has to comply with stricter conditions than those in Bill 78.

“‘When I do a human-rights rally, I have to fill out all kinds of police permits, and I doubt that [Pillay has] ever issued a statement saying that the demonstrators in front of her building don’t have enough rights,’ Mr. Neuer said.”

“What’s behind [Pillay’s] preposterous move?” law professor Anne Bayefsky asks in “The UN’s twisted human rights agenda” (National Post, June 21). Bayefsky writes that the most troubling thing about Pillay’s singling out of Canada was her failure to acknowledge “the essential distinction” between democratic and non-democratic governments under a twisted concept of even-handedness.

And speaking of “singling out” – late last month, American author Alice Walker was back in the news over her refusal to allow an Israeli publisher to translate her novel The Color Purple into Hebrew. Her reason? Because Israel, in her view, is guilty of practising “apartheid” against the Palestinians, both inside Israel and in the territories. So feverish is her attitude about the Jewish state that she’s on record charging that what occurs in Israel is “far worse” than what occurred under apartheid South Africa.

The CBC’s Neil Macdonald took Walker to task in a June 21 cbc.ca posting, accusing her (in characteristically strong terms) of appearing “to be eagerly embracing self-censorship, participating in what amounts to a pre-emptive book-burning.”

As he explained: “What makes me most uncomfortable about the kind of fervent activism that Walker and her fellow travellers advocate is not their boycott… Rather, it is the fact that they are so certain of themselves that they would blithely consent to stamp out speech.”

Not known as one to shy away from criticizing Israel, on this occasion, Macdonald reflected on the country’s democracy: “Whatever one might think of Israel’s policies, its population is a thoughtful one, and its government allows dissenting expression at a level that does not exist elsewhere in the region… The fact is, most Israelis believe in the free exchange of ideas. Yes, they can be pretty nasty about things if they don’t like your ideas, but they are generally committed to the bedrock principle of free discourse. Which, incidentally, is why most western media outlets base their Middle East correspondents in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.”

Paul Michaels is director of research and media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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