Canada and the wisdom of “governmental” human rights awards

March 6, 2017

I have written earlier about the wisdom of having purely governmental human rights awards. Now Canada adds to the discussion:

In my article for Oxford University Press (“Human Rights Awards for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders” J Hum Rights Pract (2013) 5 p552) I wrote: “A word of caution with regard to ‘governmental’ awards is in order. While it is one thing for a government to ‘support’ (e.g. financially) an otherwise independent award with an autonomous jury, the notion that governments (such as the USA, the Netherlands, France, Poland, Sweden, Canada) should run their own awards, select the winner, have the Minister hand it out and promote the award through the diplomatic service, does not sit well with the desire to protect HRDs from the charge of being ‘foreign agents’, a frequent claim by repressive governments trying to depict HRDs as being supported and funded from abroad… A degree of distance would benefit governments and would also serve the laureates themselves who usually want to be seen as spearheading the non-governmental human rights movement. Intergovernmental organizations face similar problems in having awards, as was demonstrated by the controversy surrounding UNESCO’s decision in 2010 to launch an award paid for and named after the president/dictator of Equatorial Guinea, Obiang Nguema.

In a post of 2011 I expressed some doubt about the USA State Department giving an award to Cuba dissidents (see:

A recent article (5 March 2017) by Dean Beeby of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) entitled “Diefenbaker award missing in action after Liberals take over” brings home another aspect, namely that such an award becomes a ‘political tit-for-tat’.  An award created by Stephen Harper’s government, which honoured former Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker, was inaugurated in early 2011 and given out for four years running before ‘disappearing’ in 2015 and 2016.
The Diefenbaker human-rights award was last handed out in 2014, by then-foreign affairs Minister John Baird, a huge fan of Diefenbaker and his legacy. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press). Liberal insiders declined to comment on its status, other than to say that it could be “reoriented” and that nothing is imminent.

Dean Beeby states that “The missing award may be the latest twist in the symbolic game of erase-the-legacy, which every political party plays to some extent when a government of another stripe takes over” and provides some examples from other areas, but remarkably does not mention Canada’s most well-known human rights award, the John Humphrey Freedom Award, which was named in honor of a Canadian human rights law professor who helped to prepare the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This award was given out for almost 20 years but then in 2012 the Harper Government cut funding to the NGO “Rights & Democracy” who managed the award and with it axed the award (although no formal announcement was made to my knowledge).

[The Diefenbaker award requires Canada’s diplomatic missions to produce an annual shortlist of candidates for presentation to the minister, who was also free to ignore the recommendations in favour of her or his own choices. Diplomats and others were asked to seek out individuals or groups “who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in defending human rights and freedom internationally, especially in the face of repression.” Honorees to date have all been foreign nationals. And in three out of four years, there were multiple winners.]

Source: Diefenbaker award missing in action after Liberals take over – Politics – CBC News

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