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Human rights groups blast Tories' reaction to UN envoy

Dozens of human rights lawyers, including David Eby of the BC Civil Liberties Society, endorsed a letter sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of the Conservative caucus today.

The letter, drafted by Food Secure Canada and Amnesty International Canada, condemns the federal government's response to a recent visit from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

Olivier De Schutter is appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country's situation within a specific human rights context: in this case, the right to food. He and his team were in Canada from May 6 to 16 and met with civil society groups in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg to discuss a range of issues related to food security; including poverty and hunger, GMOs, migrant worker policies and foreign investment in Canadian farmland.

De Schutter's initial requests to meet with federal ministers were denied, although Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq reportedly did hold a last-minute meeting with him.

De Schutter wrapped up his ten-day mission to Canada with recommendations to create a national food strategy that would address "the reality of the challenges it faces" when it comes to food security.

"It's not because the country is a wealthy country that there are no problems," said De Schutter. "In fact, the problems are very significant and, frankly, this sort of self-righteousness about the situation being good in Canada is not corresponding to what I saw on the ground, not at all."

Minister Aglukkaq later called De Schutter's recommendations "ill-informed", and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told reporters that the visit was "completely ridiculous."

"Canada is one of the wealthiest and most democratic countries in the world," said Kenney. "We think it's simply a waste of resources to come to Canada to give political lectures."

The letter states:

Your government went beyond attacking the mission itself, however. In a highly charged atmosphere in the House of Commons, your Ministers proceeded to attack Mr. De Schutter personally. He was described as an "ill-informed", "patronizing" "academic" who engaged in "lecturing". He was referred to as "this guy from Belgium" and criticized personally for the policies of his "home country" in relation to Canada's seal hunt. He was attacked for never having "delivered any food to anyone anywhere." The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that "it is an insult to Canadians and their tax dollars that this fellow came over here to waste the dollars they have contributed." Government members, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, repeatedly rose to their feet to enthusiastically applaud the portrayal of Mr. De Schutter as an ill-informed meddling outsider.

The National Farmers Union, Oxfam Canada, Rideau Institute, and the Social Rights Advocacy Centre were amongst other organizations that endorsed the letter. Individual signatories included Michael Byers, a UBC professor who holds a Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law, Flora Macdonald, Canada's first female minister of foreign affairs, and Ed Broadbent, former leader of the federal NDP.

The letter also notes that professor James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, received a similar response when he criticized the federal government about the dire conditions at the Attawipiskat First Nation reserve in northern Ontario last December.

Michelle Yao, spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said Anaya "lacked credibility.

The letter  calls on the prime minister to apologize to De Schutter and Anaya. 

"It is also crucial that Prime Minister Harper reconfirms publicly that his government recognizes the importance of international scrutiny of Canada’s universal human rights obligations," stated Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada's English branch, in a press release. "The government's treatment of these two Special Rapporteurs sets a troubling example for other countries of unacceptable disrespect for UN human rights experts. That cannot stand."

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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