END OF THE LINE

Baird pulling plug on trou­bled Rights & Democ­racy agency.

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRAEME HAMIL­TON Na­tional Post ghamil­ton@na­tion­al­post.com

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.

JULIE OLIVER / POST­MEDIA NEWS FILES

For­mer Rights and Democ­racy pres­i­dent Remy Beau­re­gard died of a heart at­tack af­ter a heated meet­ing.

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