Amnesty International responds to Jason Kenneys criticism of its open letter

In the battle of the open letters, here’s how it unfolded:Amnesty International’s Canadian branch wrote on Sept. 10, 2019, to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, “highlighting serious human rights concerns with his aggressive approach to defending the oil and gas industry.” Kenney responded: “I understand it must be hard for you.”And, now, Amnesty’s response to Kenney’s response …———Jason Kenney has made it abundantly clear, including in a lengthy letter published in this paper, that he sharply disagrees with the concerns Amnesty International raised in our Open Letter this week. We had noted that his government’s Fight Back Strategy, energy “war room” and public inquiry into foreign funding of environmental campaigns pose threats to the freedoms of speech and association, undermine the urgent work of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, set back efforts to address the climate crisis and expose human rights defenders to intimidation and threats.Story continues belowThis advertisement has not loaded yet,but your article continues below.Premier Kenney is derisive and mocking in his response, including frequent suggestions that we have lost our moral compass and are imagining human rights concerns where there are none. He instead remembers fondly the Amnesty International from his high school days, which campaigned to free prisoners of conscience. (We still do – every single day. In fact many of today’s prisoners of conscience are jailed because of their defence of the environment and Indigenous rights.)But here are three grim human rights realities that Premier Kenney fails to acknowledge in his attacks on Canadian civil society.First, the backdrop to all of this is the rapidly mounting global climate crisis. Earlier this week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet — who as a political prisoner during the Pinochet years in Chile knows human rights abuse only too well — put it starkly at the UN Human Rights Council. She noted that, “Climate change is a reality that now affects every region of the world. The human implications of currently projected levels of global heating are catastrophic. The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope.”Never seen a human rights threat of this scope. That is why Amnesty International is speaking out. And why we all must do so, particularly our political leaders. Instead, Premier Kenney gives the climate crisis only passing reference as he talks of “several more decades of strong oil demand,” which the world is going to “get from somewhere”. Yet Canada has committed to an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. These necessary reductions are simply not consistent with growing oil production for decades. That is why we need a robust public dialogue on these issues, rather than a “war room” attempting to single out and silence environmentalists and rights defenders who raise such critical concerns.Second, when considering the realities of oil and gas production, pipeline construction and the climate crisis anywhere in Canada, we must confront our ongoing abject failure truly to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples.Without a doubt, Indigenous Nations must have the opportunity to participate as full partners in an economy in which they have long been marginalized and exploited. But full partnership includes the freedom to raise concerns and ultimately to say no when proposed projects would cause unacceptable harm to cultural heritage, traditional economies and other values.Beyond the “war room,” Premier Kenney’s signature policy is opposition to new federal impact assessment legislation that would require the decision-making process around resource development projects to consider the implications for the constitutionally protected rights of Indigenous peoples and impacts on the communities that host such projects. His apparent goal is to revert back to the Harper-era assessment process where Indigenous rights concerns were routinely excluded, provoking conflict and lengthy court battles.Third, in recent years there has been a staggering upsurge in the frequency and severity in attacks against human rights defenders around the world. The most vulnerable have included women, Indigenous land defenders and environmental campaigners, many of whom have paid with their lives. The danger often begins with the tone set by politicians and, around the world, growing numbers of authoritarian leaders feel free to vilify human rights defenders, disregarding the peril that is unleashed. Words matter.Premier Kenney showed that exact tendency in a speech this week when he brought up the case of Greenpeace activists who were jailed in Russia back in 2013, chillingly noting that while he wouldn’t recommend such action be taken in Canada, the case was “instructive”. Instructive of what and to whom?We did not suggest that the oil and gas industry in Alberta should be shut down.We did not seek, directly or indirectly, to boost oil sales for Saudi Arabia, Russia or Venezuela; three countries where Amnesty International actively exposes and campaigns for an end to atrocious human rights violations.We did not champion the cause of foreign billionaires who the Premier seems to imagine could only be motivated by greed and power rather than, perhaps, an urgent shared worry about our global climate that should be upper mind for all of us.We also did not say that Premier Kenney should refrain from defending the oil and gas industry; in fact, we noted that is his prerogative.What we did say is that human rights must be front and centre, for the same reasons that inspired us when the Premier was in high school. “Universal human rights” means all people, all rights, and all countries (including our own).We will continue to press that demand. There is too much at stake not to.Alex Neve is the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada

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