Government rights organization in turmoil

The Montreal-based government agency Rights and Democracy has been confronted with a controversy after the group’s President, Remy Beauregard, died of a heart attack following a disruptive board meeting on January 7th. The death of Mr. Beauregard occurred during a time of turmoil and division among the staff and board members.

Former President of the Rights and Democracy group, Warren Allmand, spoke with me regarding the recent controversy of Beauregard’s death and tension between board members.

“The members of the board and the President are appointed by the government in power and they are suppose to appoint people who have different political backgrounds and are committed to the mandate which is to promote and defend all human rights,” Mr. Allmand said. “They cannot pick and chose, or defend and shield some countries and go after other countries. It should be an objective and non-partisan approach”.

Recently, the Harper government has appointed board members who hold a conservative point of view towards issues such as the Middle East. During a confrontational board meeting on January 7th, the Harper-appointed conservative members passed a resolution to cut funding to three NGOs in the Middle East that investigate and document human rights abuses.

“When the conservative members found out that last January the President had authorized small grants to three NGOS in the Middle East, one in Israel, one in West Bank and one in Gaza, these new members became extremely upset and took steps to pass a motion to freeze and repudiate these grants,” Mr. Allmand said. “They also took steps to send a negative evaluation of the President.”

The conservative members believe that the Israeli NGO, B’Tselem, is biased, and that the Palestinian NGOs – al-Haq and al-Mezan – are anti-Israeli organizations.

The decision to cut the funding resulted in the resignation of two board members. Sima Samar, Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and McGill professor of law Payam Akhvan, walked out of the board meeting. The board lost another member when the conservatives voted against the reappointment of Guido Riveros Franck, executive director of the Bolivian Foundation for Multiparty Democracy. Mr. Beauregard died a day after this meeting.

Forty-six employees of the Rights and Democracy group signed a letter addressed to Prime Minister Harper that requested the resignation of Jacques Gauthier, Aurel Braun and Elliot Tepper due to their strong conservative views. The staff has not received a response from the government, and three senior managers who disapprove of these conservative members and signed the letter were suspended.

Despite the staff’s efforts to have the conservative members resign, Chair of the Board, Jacques Gauthier, was named interim President. “The interim President they appointed is one of the three that the staff find very objectionable. So not only is he not resigning, he has been appointed Interim President,” Mr. Allmand said.

Apart from the letter from the staff of the Rights and Democracy group, Mr. Allmand and three former presidents, Ed Broadbent, Jean-Louis Roy and Jean-Paul Hubert wrote a letter addressed to Prime Minster Harper calling for an investigation into the current controversy. There has been no response to these letters as of yet.

“I don’t have much hope that the government will respond. I would like to say that they may respond and they will have an investigation, but I think they are going to say we have the right to appoint people to the board,” Mr. Allmand said.

The conflict within the Rights and Democracy group continues to escalate. On the day of Mr. Beauregard’s funeral, the organization’s office was broken into and laptops were stolen.

All requests for an interview with a spokesperson from Rights and Democracy were ignored.

Mr. Allmand does not see the current situation resolving anytime soon. “It’s a sad situation. I personally think they are going to stack more people on the board and fire a lot of people and they will get an organization that will be doing what the government wants.”

Rights and Democracy is a government-funded, non-partisan organization created in 1988 by Canada’s Parliament to promote and defend human rights and democracy internationally.

Shazia Khan