Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Human Rights

Issue 3 - Evidence, February 25, 2008

OTTAWA, Monday, February 25, 2008

The Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights met this day at 6:59 p.m. to monitor issues relating to human rights and, inter alia, to review the machinery of government dealing with Canada's international and national human rights obligations.

Senator A. Raynell Andreychuk (Chair) in the chair.


The Chair: Honourable senators, I see a quorum. We are here to monitor issues relating to human rights and, inter alia, to review the machinery of governments dealing with Canada's international and national human rights obligations. We are particularly in the middle of a study with respect to the new Human Rights Council. We issued a report last May, if my memory serves me correctly, on some preliminary findings about how the Human Rights Council is operating and suggestions regarding both Canada's role at the Human Rights Council and some issues we think need to be addressed with the Human Rights Council.

This evening, by way of video conference, we are very pleased to have, from Freedom House, Paula Schriefer, Director of Advocacy.

Paula Schriefer, Director of Advocacy, Freedom House: Thank you for inviting me to testify before you on this important topic. Eleanor Roosevelt was not only the first chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and presided over the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but she was also a founder of Freedom House. I come to this discussion, therefore, with a distinct bias that various institutions of the United Nations can and should be committed to promoting greater respect for individual dignity, grounded in the essential and fundamental premises laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I have to say, unfortunately, that we have been highly disappointed that our own government in the United States has not run for membership on the council during its first two years of existence, and we want to express our appreciation for the tremendous work that the Canadian government has done through its membership on the council to attempt to hold it to the highest standards of its mandate.

I recently read the excellent report prepared by this committee in May of last year, which you just mentioned. I am saddened to say that not only did we find the report to be extremely accurate — which is to say extremely discouraging in terms of the functioning of the council — but also that little has changed for the better in the subsequent nine months since it was published.

One of the problems clearly lies in the actual membership of the council. While the membership of the council has represented a slight improvement over that of the disbanded commission, it is still not what one would expect of the world's only global mechanism for the promotion and protection of human rights. In fact, only 23 of the 47 members are countries that Freedom House would classify as free, according to our survey of political rights and civil liberties. Ten of those countries — a full 21 per cent — are in fact classified as not free, and three of those countries — China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia — are actually ranked among the countries that we designate as the world's worst regimes when it comes to basic human rights and freedoms.

Yet even more significant than the fact that the countries that are human rights abusers actually sit on the council is that those countries that are democracies and that have reasonable records for protecting human rights in their own countries have not voted together as a group to ensure that the council does what it is supposed to do, which is to protect the world's most vulnerable citizens subjected to egregious human rights violations.

What has the council achieved since it was established? In a nutshell, the council has as served little more than a mechanism to repeatedly censure Israel while virtually ignoring most other human rights abuses occurring in the world today. Fourteen of the fifteen country-specific resolutions the council has issued since it began in mid-2006 have targeted Israel. Four of the six special sessions that have been held were called to focus on the topic of Israel. The council has even passed a resolution mandating that the issue of Israel be a permanent agenda item to be raised at every single council meeting.

In contrast, unfortunately, the council has failed to adequately address the atrocities ongoing in Darfur. While a special session was finally convened last year to discuss the situation and a team was dispatched to investigate, the report born of that trip was eventually discarded. This past December a group of experts tasked with monitoring abuses in Darfur was quietly dissolved following demands from African countries to ease the political pressure on Sudan. Democracies on the council, I am ashamed to say, have failed to actively oppose the measure.

One bright spot in the past year did remind us that the council, at some level, retains the capacity to act according to its mission. When the protests began in Burma this past fall and were dispersed violently by the country's ruling junta, the council did call for a special session, a special envoy was sent to monitor the situation and a resolution was passed that deplored the violent repression of demonstrations and urged the Government of Myanmar to lift restraints on peaceful political activity. The council proved, but only on this one occasion, that it was capable of acting swiftly.

Nonetheless, council members have also sought to eliminate the most effective elements of the commission — now the council — the system of special rapporteurs or special procedures assigned to investigate human rights abuses in specific countries or on specific topics. Ultimately a compromise was reached last year that maintained all but two of the country-specific rapporteurs, those assigned to Cuba and Belarus.

However, as only four of the twelve country-specific special rapporteurs monitored what we considered the very worst human rights abusing countries in the world, the elimination of those two represents a tremendous loss for the functioning of the council.

Similarly, at a time when the special procedures have been weakened, a new catastrophe may very well be in the making in the upcoming universal periodic review mechanism. Specifically, there is a danger that the UPR will evolve into a meaningless process in which human rights abuses are glossed over during a far-too-friendly conversation among states.

A number of elements that could have contributed to a stronger UPR, and elements that the Canadian government has supported, were shamefully watered down prior to its final passage by the council, resulting in a procedure that stresses intergovernmental consensus and inclusiveness over rigorous standards and specificity. Essentially, the danger lies in the fact that the state-dominated review process will be used by human rights abusing countries to contradict, to dismiss or to water down the more rigorous and serious reviews produced by the special procedures or by the treaty body review processes.

It is clearly time for us to stop measuring success at the Human Rights Council in terms of how many times the worst possible scenario has been averted in favour of a weak compromise. How can that happen? At the broadest level, Freedom House has taken every opportunity to chastise the American government for what appears to be a policy of standing by, watching and waiting for the council to fail in hopes that the international community will invent something better when the present council's mandate expires in a few years. If only the people of Darfur, Burma, Chad, Somalia, North Korea, and so many other countries could simply stop being victimized by unspeakable brutality during that long interim, that might be a clever if not patently cowardly plan. However, we know that the choice is not theirs, so we must strengthen our message that vigorous diplomacy and smart politicking rather than retreat are the only approaches to influence a naturally political body like the council.

Fortunately, the Canadian government does not seem to need that kind of pressure. In examining its voting record, we have been supportive of its positions repeatedly over the past two years, in terms of both the resolutions put forward and its efforts to maintain the council's strongest protection mechanisms. However, it is clear that the lack of a U.S. presence on the council has left countries like Canada isolated in bearing the brunt of the push back by those council members who prefer to hide their own abuses and who have done so quite effectively.

This type of politicking on behalf of abusers must be matched similarly by effective politicking on behalf of democracies. We strongly urge the Canadian government to put even greater diplomatic efforts into working behind the scenes, both in Geneva and in the capitals of friendly governments that are also members of the Organisation of The Islamic Conference, of the Africa group, of the Non-Aligned Movement, to build partnerships and allies that can break down the current system of bloc voting that is crippling the council at this time. We do believe that Canada has the necessary legitimacy and diplomatic savvy to steer more of these countries into voting according to human rights interests while at the same time continuing to hold the high ground in terms of its own voting patterns. Such alliances will be critical during the first session of the universal periodic review coming up in April. Specifically, Canada and its allies must be prepared to be energetic participants in the first UPR session, preparing motions in advance and tabling them quickly at the first opportunity during plenary sessions. A failure to do so could very well set back international human rights protection by decades.

Likewise, the elections coming up in May have the potential to create an even less human rights friendly council than that which exists now, if Canada and the other democracies do not encourage countries with strong human rights records to run for seats. Fully 10 of the 15 countries that will be leaving the council this year are democracies rated free by Freedom House, while only one country leaving is considered not free according to our rankings. While the unofficial slate of countries running for seats looks heartening at this point, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.

I will stop there. I want to thank the committee again for allowing me the opportunity to participate and I look forward to any questions you may have.

Senator Munson: Thank you for being with us tonight. You talked about your own government. Do you see on the horizon any new initiative that might take place no matter which party wins in the fall, whether it is Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama, or Ms. Clinton?

Ms. Schriefer: Clearly there will not be a change in the stance on the Human Rights Council under the current administration, so obviously it would be up to a new administration to initiate some kind of policy change.

I know Senator McCain quite well. He is very active in the promotion of democracy and human rights. In fact, he chaired a supervisory committee that we helped establish to oversee an independent printing press in Kyrgyzstan, of all places. He has been the chair of the board of the International Republican Institute, which itself is dedicated to the promotion of democracy, so even if we have another Republican administration, it would be a more friendly administration. That is not to say that it will absolutely be a sea change in terms of their specific policies towards the UN, but certainly the opportunity will be much greater.

With the Democrats, it is hard to say. Senator Clinton's office has reached out to Freedom House on several occasions in regard to bills that they were looking to promote. For democracy and human rights, certainly they have some talented foreign policy advisers on their team, as does Obama, but it is unclear right now what their specific policies might be toward the council.

Senator Munson: Canada recently withdrew its support from the Durban follow-up conference. Do you agree with Canada's position on this matter? Is withdrawal from the conference the most appropriate course of action?

Ms. Schriefer: My colleagues and I had a debate about this earlier in the day with other American human rights organizations. Some of them feel that while withdrawal was probably inevitable given how the past Durban conference was set up and conducted, it might have been more helpful to hang in a little bit longer to try to frame the conference.

However, it probably was the right idea to pull out early on. There needs to be a sign among countries that really care about these issues that there is very little legitimacy in this type of process.

Senator Munson: What route then should like-minded countries take in dealing with this sort of issue? It is very serious.

Ms. Schriefer: It is a very serious issue. Some language about these issues came out of Durban I, but I would encourage countries that generally care about the very serious issues of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and similar issues to pull out and indicate that this particular venue is not a credible forum.

Senator Munson: Because of time, you did not talk about the countries that you listed — Cuba, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe and Iran — and their human rights violations. How much pressure can Freedom House, a Senate committee in Canada and other groups really apply to such regimes to elicit change? We say many things, but how can we apply pressure?

Ms. Schriefer: Obviously, there are different ways to do it. Every country has its bilateral relations with other countries, and some countries clearly have more pressure points than others. A case in point, for instance, is Uzbekistan where, interestingly, the U.S. followed the advice of the human rights community and insisted upon an independent human rights investigation into Andizhan. As a result of its hard line there, the U.S. has lost a great deal of its influence in that country, although it seems they are looking to re-establish relations. Clearly, each country needs to evaluate what the potential pressure points are with countries in which they have bilateral relations, but the reality is that often they do not have an ability to act in an individual capacity, which is why, despite all of the shortcomings, in a multilateral body like the United Nations it is nonetheless critical to act in concert with other countries. Our chief criticism of the council is not that the council itself is flawed or hopeless. In fact, if you look at the composition of the council and the majority of democracies that occupy seats, there is no reason why it should not be functioning better, other than that we have not been skilful in working as a group with other democracies to push the right issues.

Senator Jaffer: Thank you for your presentation. It was very useful. I have a supplementary on what Senator Munson was saying.

Nobody can quarrel that Durban I was very destructive. It did not help the issue of racism; in fact, it hurt it, and it broke those groups that worked together. Nobody wants a repeat of that process.

My worry is that if we walk away, then what? I am sure Freedom House has thought about that. I am always concerned that if you walk away from the process, you leave people behind. Then there are no checks and balances. You are not sitting at the table to bring your voice. Do we then have two dialogue groups? Will that help? I would like to hear what Freedom House thinks should happen.

Ms. Schriefer: It is a tough question. We have struggled with the question of whether to continue to push our government and others to stay engaged in the council. At what point do we say that it is simply not worth it, that this body has been so delegitimized that we would perhaps be better off calling for a complete boycott?

As you say, what is the alternative then? Where do you go? That is particularly true when human rights defenders and individual victims are in countries that are not party to other mechanisms; they do not have other places they can go to have a hearing of their issues. That brings us back to the point that there is no viable alternative, at least at this time. The council is the only global mechanism for addressing the issues of many human beings in the world. Therefore, as much as it is not functioning well, we do not see a point in the near future where we will say it is not worth it.

Having said that, though, there is a line at which a body is completely delegitimized, and I want to note that in the past, looking back in history to UNESCO, for instance, there was a time when Freedom House did call for a boycott and called for our government not to be a party to that, as it was pressing for national press issues that basically would get rid of the idea of free expression and a free press. At that point, we felt it was no longer worth it to engage with that body.

We are not there yet with the overall Human Rights Council, but I do feel like Durban created that kind of level of illegitimacy that it is not worth working there. I do not know what the best alternative is to move forward on these important issues.

Obviously, you have the various covenants and the treaty that was specifically set up to look at this issue. Perhaps that is a mechanism that makes more sense.

Senator Jaffer: Your country is one of the largest democratic countries, and there is an effect when a country like yours does not engage in the Human Rights Council; you have already said that very articulately so I will not repeat it. Can we perhaps get some suggestions from you as to what role Canada can play in encouraging your government to be more of a participant?

Ms. Schriefer: It is not just the administration. We lack broad support for the Human Rights Council in our Congress. There have been multiple hearings like this one. There are quite a few skeptics, and I do think it is incredibly useful for other governments to stand up and say, ``Hey, listen, it actually has hurt our ability to function at the council without you being there.'' I think they need to hear that not just from the NGOs but from our allies. There is a real sense among many members of our Congress, certainly among the administration, that their presence on the council at this particular point in time would not be useful, and it is important for Canada and others to tell them otherwise.

The Chair: When the new Human Rights Council was set up, I heard that one way to clear the air was to have United States step aside so that the council was not so polarized around Cuba and Israel and that other countries should in alliance take the lead because of the numbers being so few. Are you saying now that they should not have made that judgment?

Ms. Schriefer: In our view, and this is also the feedback I have heard from other governments, not having the U.S. there has hurt the council's ability to work. If I may be crass, it may be for no other reason than that the U.S. served as a good pounding board for many of those negative countries, whereas now countries like Canada have to take the brunt of that abuse. Frankly, it is a bit easier for the U.S. to take that abuse. ``Bridge builders'', I think, was the term used in the committee, which is a very good word. Bridge builders like Canada, Norway and other countries can do some important work behind the scenes. That is not to say that I think that Canada should be making different decisions regarding resolutions. Absolutely, Canada has been voting the right way and should continue to do so, but with the U.S. on board, it would be easier for the U.S. to take a lot of the heat from some of the countries that are pushing back.

Senator Jaffer: You brought up a point that I have been struggling with; I was Canada's envoy to Darfur for many years, and that issue is close to my heart. Why do you think the council succeeded in acting on Burma? Did Burma not have the blocs to support it? Something worked on Burma and it does not work for Darfur. I would like your opinions on that.

Ms. Schriefer: I did not analyze the specific votes by countries that helped to make Burma happen. It would be useful to do that. I should point out that we do not have a permanent office in Geneva, so we are not as plugged in to the behind-the-scenes action as perhaps even your own mission there was. My suspicion is that much of the difficulty on the Darfur resolution, for instance, was led by the Africa group, for better or worse.

Sometimes I am astounded, because many of the countries within the Africa group would have it within their interests to have seen strong action taken there. The Algerian leadership was very strong and aggressive as the head of the Africa group, and my suspicion, not based in fact or research, is that you did not have that kind of opposition when it came to Burma.

I also wonder if the upcoming Olympics in China and the heightened attention being paid to China, and particularly China's role in supporting countries like Burma and Sudan, may have lessened China's opposition to the resolution that was taken on Burma.

Senator Poy: Can you clarify for me what Freedom House does and how it works with the council, if it does?

Ms. Schriefer: By American standards, Freedom House is quite an old organization. We were set up in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt and a bipartisan group of individuals who felt that Americans and anyone living in freedom have a moral obligation to help those around the world whose freedom is imperilled in some way. That has stayed our mission goal throughout our 60-plus years of existence.

We are unique, I would say, among human rights organizations in that we fiercely maintain a bipartisan board. You will see individuals on our board who are quite conservative and others who are quite liberal, and they are simply united in this common belief that freedom matters.

In regard to our work, we are first and foremost an advocacy organization. We were founded to pressure the United States to have a foreign policy that incorporates the spread of freedom and democracy as much as possible. We are also a bit of a think tank. We have a whole research and publications division that produces analysis and research that examine the state of freedom, and those publications were intended to be tools to help us do a better job at our advocacy.

Our organization works on the ground in a number of countries around the world to try to help activists and human rights defenders and to provide them with direct support. At times we can provide only moral support, but at other times we can do more.

With regard to our work with the council, I would say that our most important task is to bring to Geneva as part of our delegation activists and defenders from different parts of the world who would not otherwise have access to the Human Rights Council, so that they meet with the special rapporteurs and representatives, participate in and witness the plenaries and try to make use of the only global mechanism for the protection of human rights.

In the past couple of years, we have been a bit more active in evaluating the functioning of the council and lobbying democracies to get their act together to get the council back on track. Again, the numbers are there, so we should be able to do so.

Senator Poy: How is Freedom House funded?

Ms. Schriefer: We are funded through a combination of public and private resources. Our programs out of our field offices and the type of work I described in working with activists are primarily funded by the U.S. government as well as by other democratic governments — the Dutch, the British and the Australians have all given us grant money to run our various field programs. Our research and publications are mainly funded by private foundations and individuals. Of course, our advocacy is entirely funded by private foundations and individuals.

Senator Poy: Your organization is based in the U.S. Do you have any equivalent in other countries?

Ms. Schriefer: We have a mini-office, if you will, in Budapest, which we call Freedom House Europe. It duplicates all of our advocacy, research and programming. Certainly, other organizations do at least some of the components of our work. Many of them do research and analysis while others do the kind of programming that we do, and of course there are other advocacy organizations. However, we do not know of any organizations, even here in the U.S., that do all three of those things.

Senator Poy: How effective do you think the UPR process can be? What kind of teeth does it have?

Ms. Schriefer: The way it has been structured has limited its capacity to be as effective as it could have been. Canada strongly pushed for the UPR, which was the right thing to do, but it also pushed for the sort of teeth within the UPR that would make it effective. It pushed for more frequent reviews of countries. Now, it seems that every four years a country might be reviewed. The whole process of who does the review has been greatly weakened by having a random selection of three member countries. It would have been far stronger to have independent experts involved in that panel — at least the UN's own expert, the special procedures, the special rapporteurs — for the three-hour oral review process. Independent experts have no ability to engage in that discussion, so it is left to the plenary sessions.

I am quite concerned that the countries deserving strong scrutiny will use a weakened, watered-down UPR process to contradict the more rigorous review that can already exist either by the special procedures or in the various treaty bodies. It has not taken place yet, so we will have an opportunity to see in April. Obviously, precedent is hugely important in a bureaucracy like the UN. It is critical that Canada, other democracies and the NGOs get their act together to ensure that this process becomes meaningful.

Senator Oliver: I have three questions. First, when you were making your presentation, you said that bloc voting is crippling the council. What is at the root of that bloc voting? What is Freedom House doing about it, and what you can do about it?

Second, you said that the elections are coming up in May and that 10 to 15 countries will be changing. What is Freedom House doing on the ground to try to ensure that some right-thinking countries get on the council?

Third, you said that Congress is highly skeptical about the council. You said they do not feel that their presence would be too useful. In your view, having talked to a number of members in Congress and having had them on your board, what is at the root of their skepticism?

Ms. Schriefer: I will begin with the first question on bloc voting patterns. You know the debates that go back decades over whether there is a bias toward the Northern tier or Western-oriented democracies versus the developing countries. The leadership of many of the regional organizations — the Africa group, the Asia group of countries, some of the membership countries like the Organisation of The Islamic Conference — are doing really smart politicking. They are convincing their members that the Western or Northern countries are out to get them and that they should be unified in their approaches. Simply, they are doing a better job than we are doing. I do not know what more to say about that.

What are we doing about it? Well, we are not doing enough. Clearly, we do not have enough resources to devote to it. However, the approach by Canada and what we are recommending is the right approach. The UPR, for instance, was an excellent idea because it forces all of the countries to be reviewed, making it difficult to say that only certain countries are being put up for scrutiny. That was a brilliant strategy. We just have to ensure, because the devil is in the details, that it works in the way that it should work and that there is a serious review.

It is important to have a serious review, even of those countries that we put in the ``free category'' at Freedom House. Democracy is an ongoing work in progress. Clearly, as the U.S. has shown since September 11, you have to ensure that your mechanisms of checks and balances are working.

Freedom House is getting ready to put out a full-length book report on the state of freedom in the U.S.; that will be released next month. There are some real concerns about our state of democracy. It is important that we review them and that other countries review them. Making sure that your house is in order at home can only help to dissuade the kind of bloc voting that we are seeing at the UN.

Canada has one of the best records of putting its house in order, which is why I said with absolute sincerity that it is truly in a position to begin to persuade some of those countries that should not be voting according to the bloc on some of these issues and that have other interests.

Regarding the election process, we have tried to reach out to countries that have pretty good human rights records and encourage them to run for seats on the council if they are eligible to do so at a particular time or to make sure that they do not vote for countries that have bad records. It is not an easy job. We do not have an office in Geneva, so we have to think about when we can afford to spend the resources to go there. During one of my trips last year, I went met with a number of the embassies. Several ambassadors said things to me like, ``Oh, you sweet girl. Of course Belarus will be elected to the council. Why are you worrying yourself over this? Just start preparing your advocacy strategy for when it happens.''

I replied, ``I do not accept that Belarus will get elected to the council, actually. There are plenty of other countries in the East European bloc that should be running for that position. ``As it happened, and we counted very few victories last year, Belarus did not get elected to the council. That kind of outreach needs to be done. We held an event last year together with UN Watch to draw attention to this issue. It received a lot of press coverage, and we will do the same this year.

With respect to the root of the anti-UN thinking in the U.S. government, you have seen a government that thinks it can act far more effectively unilaterally than it actually can. Clearly, the UN is beset with all of the flaws of any political, inclusive body, and those flaws are used as an excuse by certain people who would prefer not to have to engage in the kind of tough, diplomatic work that is necessary but would like simply to stand back and call the UN council a failure rather than invest time and resources into it. We disagree with them and try to point out that Congress itself is a political body whose members often do not get along well with their colleagues and sometimes have very different opinions on issues. Nonetheless, it does not stop them from running; it just encourages them to be better politicians.

Senator Oliver: Those are three great answers. Thank you very much.

Senator Lovelace Nicholas: What do you think the future of the council is?

Ms. Schriefer: There is still hope for the council, which is why we are still saying that countries should engage more. We have not yet reached the point where we think countries should pull out. However, if the UPR process becomes a farce, that spells bad news for the Human Rights Council.

We feel positive about the special procedures, which are the most effective mechanism that the council has at its disposal right now. On the other hand, they have been weakened, and we lost two of the best and most important country-specific special procedures last year. They will continue to be attacked, and frankly, it all depends on the actions and the will of the democratic countries that dominate membership on the council and whether or not they are willing to work together.

The Chair: When the council was put together, we gave them the policy role, which is political. That is the working of the council and the UPR. We also have the administration of all the treaties, and those have been put under the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Was that a wise separation?

Would you comment on the role of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and what her role should be to encourage the functioning of the council? When we were there for our meetings, the UN commissioner said that the council is the political arm and not her issue. How does one square all of that?

Ms. Schriefer: When we testified before our own Congress last year, we talked about the need to put pressure on the High Commissioner for Human Rights, particularly because we are concerned that she seems to be taking the position that she does not have the ability to influence what is taking place at the council. I do not agree with that, and most people who have evaluated that particular role do not agree with it either. There needs to be more pressure put on her to play a more active and engaged role with the council.

I would also note that she made some statements to the media earlier this year — in January, I believe, although it might have been in December — about the fact that the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was coming up on December 10, and she emphasized that her office would be stressing, in particular, the economic and social aspects of that, which also gives me a bit of pause for concern. Clearly, we think that the political rights and the civil liberties are equally as important, if not more so, than those other types of positive rights.

Our sense is that we would like to see the high commissioner be more active and take a stronger role.

The Chair: You have mentioned China and you have mentioned the blocs. Do you see any difference emerging in the way India, Brazil and some other Latin American countries are approaching the council as opposed to the way they approached the commission?

Ms. Schriefer: We continue to be a bit disappointed in some of the democracies like India. I will not comment on Brazil's voting record because I am not as familiar with it. We certainly have followed South Africa's, which we find to be extraordinarily disappointing on many levels.

India is interesting because at the same time that it seems not to be voting in the way that we would promote, on the other hand, it donated quite a bit of money to the United Nations Democracy Fund in its first year, and it has recently expressed support for this new handbook for diplomats that would encourage diplomats to engage in the kind of diplomacy that supports human rights. We get mixed messages from India, but if it could be encouraged to vote the right way more often, it could effect a big change at the council.

Senator Munson: We had recommended a Canadian ambassador for human rights in our report. I guess there are other ambassadors for human rights in France, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden. Do you believe in an ambassador that would highlight the role of each country in this exercise?

Ms. Schriefer: It was an interesting recommendation, and I have met with the French ambassador for human rights and talked to him about his position and why it was created and why they seem to think it was a necessary position to create within the French system. It depends on the country.

I also read your government's response to the report, including that recommendation. I do not know enough about how your different positions relate to one another and whether this particular position would be useful in your system.

I can tell you that Freedom House did recommend that the U.S. create a position, at least, of a special envoy for human rights, but that was partly because the U.S. had refused to run for a seat on the council, and we felt that having some type of position that was dedicated would bring a higher profile than our ambassador in Geneva was able to have, not being an actual member of the council.

I have seen it work in other governments. You mentioned the Dutch and the French, and they are the ones I am most familiar with. They seem to have found an effective way of bringing together the multiple parties who should care about human rights and they try to coordinate their efforts better. I do not know enough about the Canadian system to say whether that would be a benefit in your case, but with the work of your government on the council, you have been the stars of the council over this past year, in our estimation.

Senator Munson: We are a bipartisan Senate committee of Liberals and Conservatives, but there is a Conservative government today. I leave it at that. We will just keep pressuring this government and whatever government is in power, because in the Senate we can get along here.

In your statement, you said, in a nutshell, that the council has served as a mechanism to repeatedly censor Israel while virtually ignoring every other human rights abuse occurring in the world today, and you talked about 14 of the 15 country-specific resolutions.

Let us fast-forward one year from now, and we are having a chat, and this repeats itself for one more year. I am just wondering how it can have any legitimacy at all.

Ms. Schriefer: I would wonder that as well. If the response to Burma had not happened in the rather positive way, I do not know that I would be continuing to encourage engagement with the council.

I will say this. Clearly, it was unfortunate that the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon took place right at the time this council was shaping up. That generated much of this frenzied activity and the focus on Israel. However, given the very effective politicking and voting on behalf of the Organisation of The Islamic Conference, on behalf of the African group, the Asian group and other Muslim majority countries, Israel will continue to be pounded on. The question is whether or not that can be evened out at least by resolutions that are less biased in their words.

Most of us feel that there was some area to be looking critically at what was taking place in Israel. However, in the grand scheme of things and based on what was taking place in the rest of the world, obviously it is a real perversion of the council's focus to have put so much time and energy into that particular issue. Again, the phrasing of the resolutions was so one-sided and biased that it made it extraordinarily illegitimate, in our eyes.

Senator Jaffer: I have many questions, so I will try to ask them quickly. We talk about voting together in a bloc; I have always been preoccupied with where it starts with membership. Because there is regional membership, you come together to decide who will represent you, so you automatically then have a bloc. I feel that the way the regional membership comes about sort of automatically leads to bloc voting. Can you give me some thoughts on that? Maybe I am wrong.

Ms. Schriefer: You have only to compare the functioning of the Security Council or even the General Assembly with that of the Human Rights Council. We saw a number of resolutions that were passed by the Security Council last year against many of the countries that I put in my list here that the Human Rights Council was unable to address. You have those same sorts of regional groups trying to influence there.

I do not buy that countries automatically have to vote according to these regional blocs. They have other interests. We simply need to do a smarter political job behind the scenes to pull some of these countries out of those regional votes.

Senator Jaffer: I have is a technical question about the universal review process. I understand there is a cycle every four years and that our government has said that there should be a role for civil society in the review process. I would like to hear your thoughts on that.

Ms. Schriefer: We were very much in favour of a stronger role for civil society. However, the bigger issue than civil society is independent expertise in the process. Here is another example where the U.S. government was on the wrong side of the issue, in our opinion, as we understand the U.S. was not pushing strongly for independent expertise to be included as part of that review process. That was very much in contradiction of what the majority of U.S.-based human rights organizations were in favour of.

As it is now, the process is that the state being reviewed has the opportunity to submit 20 pages of documentation about the human rights situation. The Office of the High Commissioner can produce another 10 pages; and then other parties, which include civil society organizations, academics and outside experts, can also submit their reports, which will then be compiled into another 10 pages. The whole set of documentation that will be put on the table to be reviewed at the UPR is a mere 40 pages, half of which has been presented essentially by the state being reviewed.

This is completely ridiculous compared to the process of review in any of the treaty bodies, for instance. This is supposed to be looking at the overall human rights picture in that country. With that level or documentation it is impossible to get into the kind of specificity that one would need to get into to have a serious review of the situation.

Moreover, you do not have experts for even part of the triumvirate that is leading the review process. You simply have these other randomly selected member countries. At that point, in our opinion, it becomes just a conversation. It is not a serious review process.

I am quite concerned about the UPR. I think it is critical, even before the session takes place, for both NGOs and democratic governments like Canada to look at the list of countries that are being reviewed. There are some countries with serious human rights abuses coming up during the first session in April. We should prepare ahead of time motions to be tabled during the plenary session that deal with some of the real abuses in those countries. Otherwise, we will just be outmanoeuvred yet again, and this UPR process will dilute the ability of the council to seriously review these countries.

Senator Jaffer: Is there an NGO that you work with in Canada on these issues?

Ms. Schriefer: Not specifically on human rights issues. We worked on a big North Korea project over the past year, for instance, and we worked with several Canadian student associations in publicizing our report. We would be greatly interested in doing more work with partners in different parts of the world. We are a member of a coalition of human rights organizations based in the U.S., but I would love to bring a Canadian partner into that group. There is not one currently.

The Chair: As a follow-up to Senator Jaffer on the bloc voting, it took us some time to develop our own bloc, which was the Western Europeans and others. It took a long time to work through the commission of the old days. At that time, Europe was 12 and then it was 15 and now it is a huge group. For them to have a consensus on many of the issues in many of the countries is difficult.

The European countries that sit on the council do not come with the same unified voice for Europe — sometimes because of timing, et cetera. Is that one of our weaknesses, that we are part of a group that has its own dilemmas within its own group? Therefore, it takes time for us in Canada to be able to work with the Europeans because of their structures now.

Ms. Schriefer: That has led to greater complications in voting together as a unified bloc; absolutely. For instance, the Community of Democracies was created, and parallel to that a UN democracy caucus was created. The idea was that it could be a bloc unified on ideas and on themes and on putting the priority of human rights first as opposed to these sorts of regional groupings. Unfortunately, that vision has not come to fruition yet. Partly, I think it is because it is a new vision. It is also because there has not been a real organizer behind that.

You know as well as I do that when you are at the UN, sitting in the plenary session in Geneva, you will constantly see little reminders on the board that the Organisation of The Islamic Conference or the Africa group is having its meeting at such and such a time, but you never see a note that the democracy caucus is having an organizing meeting. It falls down to creating some leadership. It does not have to be the democracy caucus; it could be something else, but something has to unify these countries beyond the regional groupings, which are clearly not working.

The Chair: Ms. Schriefer, we have come to the end of our time. I want to thank you on behalf of all the senators for your information and for being available for this videoconference.

I would characterize your testimony before us as realistic optimism. You have pointed out all of the pitfalls, but you have not quite given up on the council. You see some rays of hope, if I could call it that, and I think challenges that we have to overcome if we are to make this truly a council that works for the people around the world whose rights are being denied or abused.

Thank you very much. You have touched more areas than I had anticipated, and I trust that you will see some of your comments coming through with our deliberations as we go forward.

Ms. Schriefer: Thank you very much.

The committee adjourned.