Two senior federal cabinet ministers heaped scorn on this soft-spoken, mild-mannered and unfailingly-polite Belgian law professor’s May 16 report on inadequate human rights protection in Canadian food policy.
The insulting and dismissive response galvanized Canada’s typically localized and health-focused food movements, and catapulted federal human rights issues into the foreground of food policy concerns.
Despite the recent federal budget’s chill on charities doing public advocacy, a strongly-worded chain letter demanding an apology from the PM hit the streets within a week, signed by a hundred prominent human rights and food advocates, including former Liberal and Conservative cabinet members. Since being posted on Food Secure Canada’s website, the letter has gained many more signatories, including some of the most respected legal experts in the country.
What’s the fuss about?
Olivier De Schutter is one of 37 UN rapporteurs, each charged with a demanding human rights file that requires a champion with expertise. As the rapporteur on the right to food — an issue profiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization, established by world leaders meeting in Canada in 1944, and by the UN’s 1948 charter, written by a Canadian – De Schutter toured and reported on nine countries before coming to Canada, the first wealthy country he’s investigated.
Following two weeks of meetings with senior civil servants, and visits to neighborhood organizations and Aboriginal communities in four provinces, he called for a Canadian food policy in keeping with its UN commitments. Recent tax cuts of $48 billion to wealthy people indicated that the money was at hand to fund social assistance and minimum wages so that 900,000 people a month didn’t rely on food banks, and 15 per cent of Aboriginal peoples didn’t suffer chronic hunger, he argued.
Immigration minister Jason Kenney hit back hard, saying De Schutter was wasting the UN’s money. “It would be our hope that the contributions we make to the United Nations are used to help starving people in developing countries, not to give lectures to wealthy and developed countries like Canada,” he said. “And I think this is a discredit to the United Nations.”
Health minister Leona Aglukaq said De Schutter was insulting, “ill-informed” and “patronizing.” Canada’s northern people hunt for food every day, she said, but De Schutter neglected “fighting environmentalists that try to put a stop to our way of life, of hunting to provide for our families.”
The ministers got all their facts wrong. Thanks to his day job as a human rights professor and an ability to work 16-hour days, De Schutter donates all his time to the UN and raises funds for his expenses, so the Canadian government will have to look elsewhere to cut budgets of international civil servants. He has a standing invite to visit Canada, a courtesy Canada has long extended, in keeping with its signing the 1993 Vienna Declaration on human rights, which calls human rights a “priority for the international community” and “the first responsibility of governments,” and makes no exceptions for wealthy nations. In 2009, Canada’s UN representative said “Canada recognizes that no country, including itself, has a perfect human rights record, which emphasized the importance of every country opening its human rights records to scrutiny, domestically and internationally.”
De Schutter’s meetings with government officials were all arranged by Canada’s department of foreign affairs. De Schutter released his report flanked by Inuit national leader Mary Simon, who referred to surveys documenting 70 per cent levels of food insecurity among Inuit peoples.
Such information makes the PM’s duty to apologize straightforward. He simply has to admit to errors of fact by senior government reps.
The protest letter was organized mainly by Amnesty International’s Alex Neve and Food Secure Canada’s Diana Bronson.
A longtime human rights specialist, Bronson introduced me to the power of a human rights perspective on food when she presented a brief to De Schutter at a public meeting I chaired on school-related food issues at Toronto’s FoodShare offices. When we see children going to school without a meal in their stomach, we’re not just seeing a health problem or educational problem, she said; we’re witnessed a violation of that child’s human rights, which are protected by international treaties. I’m embarrassed to say that over a dozen years of writing about food security issues, I’ve rarely highlighted this perspective, which now strikes me as fundamental.
It’s also worth thinking about why De Schutter and the rights stuff are such hot button issues for Conservatives — so hot that one columnist for the Sun chain of tabloids gives De Schutter as an example of why Canada should quit the UN. De Schutter has an uncanny ability to bring out a Conservative inner child.
Hostility to human rights expresses the body-snatching quality of Harper Conservatives, which has repudiated the core heritages of both parties that formed it – Reform, which had populist roots, and Progressive Conservative, which had “pink Tory” roots of social compassion. Neither heritage is consistent with the Harper government’s record of bashing human rights.
Harper appointees opposed an emergency UN meeting on the right to food in the midst of the 2008 food price crisis that added some 40 million people to the ranks of the desperately hungry caused riots in some 40 countries. Today, Canada resists recognition of access to water as a right.
Human rights subvert the authoritarian twist of Conservatives committed to “negative rights” that keep the state from interfering in an individual’s right to speech, religion, security or property, as opposed to positive rights to food, water or health that the state must protect. Human rights obligations also challenge deregulation of global corporations and financiers through trade deals that define all natural and social goods as commodities duly regulated by the profit motive.
But it appears that the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority doesn’t mean never having to say they’re sorry. The country has signed on to a web of international human and civil rights obligations, and they remain in force.