END OF THE LINE
Baird pulling plug on troubled Rights & Democracy agency.
MONTREAL • Citing the turmoil that has engulfed Rights and Democracy and the need to cut spending, the Conservative government announced Tuesday that it will close the federally funded human-rights agency.
“For some time, the many challenges of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, also known as Rights & Democracy, have been well publicized,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement. “It is time to put these past challenges behind us and move forward.”
The move brings an end to an organization created by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government in 1988. Its annual government funding had grown from an initial $1million to more than $11-million in its last fiscal year, when it had projects in 17 countries around the world.
The shutdown, which Mr. Baird said is part of a government effort “to find efficiencies and savings,” will be made official in legislation to be tabled in the near future. The work of promoting rights and democracy abroad will fall to Foreign Affairs Department staff in Ottawa and in Canadian embassies, he said.
While the decision came as a shock to the roughly 40 staff members at
''It was nothing more than an empty shell, without a vision''
Rights and Democracy’s Montreal headquarters, many familiar with the organization said pulling the plug was the best thing to do under the circumstances.
David Matas, a current board member, said he supports the decision. He called Rights and Democracy “organizationally dysfunctional,” saying that over the years the staff had grown accustomed to promoting “their own human rights agenda” without answering to the board. He also said repressive regimes have grown more hostile to Western countries funding rights workers in their countries.
But Ed Broadbent, the former NDP leader who served as the centre’s first president, accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government of undermining Rights and Democracy’s independence and international credibility with partisan appointments to its board of directors.
“It’s very sad for me,” he said in an interview. “My friends abroad, who recognized the institution for its independence, lost all respect for it in recent years. It’s been put out of its misery.”
France-isabelle Langlois, a former deputy director of programs for Rights and Democracy who left last summer, said the organization had been sabotaged.
“For close to two years it was nothing more than an empty shell, without a vision, objectives or solid projects,” she said. “It’s too bad, but under these circumstances [shutting it down] was no doubt the best thing to do.”
Payam Akhavan, a Mcgill University law professor who resigned from the board in protest in 2009, believing the board had become stacked against then-president Rémy Beauregard, said Conservative appointments to the Rights and Democracy board had set the stage for its dismantling.
“It’s unfortunate that an organization that for only $11-million a year was promoting Canadian values abroad — was effectively spreading our goodwill and influence in the international community — has been destroyed after almost 25 years of operation,” he said.
A building crisis within Rights and Democracy broke to the surface in January 2010 when its president, Mr. Beauregard, died of a heart attack following a heated board meeting. It emerged that Mr. Beauregard had been under fire from board chairman Aurel Braun and other board members for his awarding of $10,000 grants to three organizations investigating Israel over purported human rights abuses.
Complaining of the “systemic personal attacks” to which Mr. Beauregard had been subjected, 45 staff members signed a letter demanding the resignations of Mr. Braun and two other board members. Three senior managers were fired and Mr. Beauregard’s temporary replacement, Jacques Gauthier, called in auditors and a corporate espionage investigator to look for evidence of wrongdoing.
Gérard Latulippe, a failed candidate for the Canadian Alliance, was appointed president, but he proved unable to right the ship. He was not available for comment Tuesday. A statement on the organization’s website said it would respect the government’s decision and proceed with “a timely and organized wind down of our operations” as directed by the board of directors.
In addition to the Montreal head office, Rights and Democracy has a seven-person staff in Haiti and an 18-person staff in Kabul. Other countries in which it had programs in 2010-11 included Burma, China, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Colombia.
A Foreign Affairs Department spokesman was unable to provide an estimate of the cost of closing down the operations, in severance payments and other expenses.
In Ottawa, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, said Rights and Democracy “represented the best of Canada” and its closing will further dilute Canada’s international credibility.
But one former employee, who left in 2006, had a different perspective. Lauryn Oates recalled the “heavy hostility permeating the organization” and said the union and management were constantly at each other’s throats.
“The problems run so deep, and the history of a lack of transparency, conflicts and ineffectiveness go back so far, that it seems to me that something about the organization’s structure and its spirit just fundamentally does not work,” she said.
Former Rights and Democracy president Remy Beauregard died of a heart attack after a heated meeting.