Speaking out against pieces of sh*t in Canada and abroad

Matt Price of the Huffington Post recently wondered in a blog why more Canadians aren’t losing it like Trudeau. The reference was to Trudeau’s recent outburst in the House of Commons calling Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of shit.” The guy who stole my wallet last month is a piece of shit; Peter Kent is not. At least he shouldn’t have been called that in the House of Commons. Mr. Kent was more cowardly than shit-like. He was in no position to criticize NDP environment critic Megan Leslie for not attending the Durban climate conference. It was his government that prevented any delegates from other parties to attend the conference.

While I don’t think the House of Commons is the place for such language, I applaud Mr. Trudeau for bringing more media attention to the policies and practices our government is taking, apparently without much objection from many of its citizens. The Canada that the current government is creating is not one to be proud of, from reneging on the Kyoto Protocol, cutting funding for abortions, scrapping the gun registry, passing a crime bill that will likely do more harm than good, losing a seat on the UN Security Council, and systematically marginalizing aboriginal rights. For that last one, the UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples James Anaya contacted the Canadian government about the “dire social and economic condition” about the Attawapiskat First Nation. The response from the government’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister: the special rapporteur’s statement “lacks credibility.” Smells like shit, and it’s not coming from the UN.

How does this “lack credibility”?

Don’t think this is going unnoticed, here in Canada or abroad. Fifteen years ago, I travelled to other countries and could be assured of a smile every time I said I was Canadian. Nowadays, most people frown, hesitate before speaking, and finally ask me: “What’s wrong with your country now?”

There’s plenty wrong with our country, but I’m also aware (and deeply thankful, but not thankful to this government) for the liberties I have. I can criticize the government because it’s my right. I don’t live in fear of being arrested or assaulted by the police if I say something against the government. I have freedom, I have liberty, I have freedom of expression, and I realize as I reflect on the realities in other countries that I don’t exercise my freedom of expression enough. I might not get to the point where I start name-calling government officials, but I should be more vocal about the things I care about. When it comes to respecting the human rights of all Canadians (and our right to a clean environment is intricately linked to our human rights as individuals and groups), it is shameful that the government dismisses any criticisms, from opposition parties to public outcry to the United Nations, and ploughs ahead with its own agenda. This is not a Canada I am proud of. This is not my Canada.

Blatant disregard for basic human rights – Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states we all have the right to life, liberty and security of the person – continues to tarnish progress in Canada and elsewhere in the world, even in this year of the Arab Spring. The death toll in Syria is over 5000 since protests began, violence has erupted again in Egypt following elections, and the oppression continues in Bahrain. When I think back at the year’s events, as so many of us do as the year’s end approaches, there is one issue above all that upsets me the most, and recent events have only made things worse. I am still angry at the arrest, imprisonment, mistreatment, and unfair trial of my friend and human rights defender Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, currently serving a life sentence in Bahrain for defending the rights of others. His daughter Zainab, clearly demonstrating very peacefully against the government at a roundabout last week, was handcuffed, dragged into a police van, and arrested. This is wrong. His arrest was wrong, her arrest is wrong; both should be free. Her lawyers were told yesterday, “What trial?” as they appeared in court. The leadership in Bahrain should think of implementing the recommendations put forward by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. When will the violence end, when will the common denominator that bonds us all – our humanity – be enough to stop the hatred? When will those in positions of power admit to their weaknesses, mistakes, and human rights violations so we can move on with our lives and focus on bettering ourselves and helping each other rather than oppressing those who dare to speak of human rights for all?

To those who have fought to claim your own rights and protect the rights of others, I respect and envy your courage. You are the voice of the fed up, the tired, the pissed off, the oppressed, the violated, the hurt. Speak up so that more can be inspired.

CIVICUS Day 4: We don’t have a plan B because we don’t have a planet B.

The CIVICUS 9th World Assembly came to a close yesterday here in Montreal. The focus of the day was on climate change, and the morning plenary welcomed speakers who had the gravitas to engage the audience on the complexity of the issues at hand. Among the speakers was Tom Athanasiou of EcoEquity, an activist think tank focusing on international climate justice. Also on the panel was Judith Pasimio of the Asian Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, and finally Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace. Steven Guilbeault from Quebec’s own Equiterre rounded off the panel. Athena Ballesteros of the World Resources Institute was the moderator.

The moderator began her remarks by stating that moving forward on climate change meant a discussion on equity. In particular, she highlighted four points:
  1. Equity in terms of historical responsibility: The majority of greenhouse gases are being emitted by industrial countries of the north. These countries have consistently avoided their share of taking responsibility for concrete action to reduce their emissions.
  2. Equity in terms of the poor and most vulnerable: The poorest and most vulnerable populations are being disproportionably affected by climate change. They are also often the first to be hit by climate change, as is evidenced by the millions of people affected by the floods in Pakistan.
  3. Equity in terms of the funding gap: There remains a huge funding gap to address climate change. The International Energy Agency estimates that $26 trillion (2008 USD) in capital will be needed to meet the projected energy demand worldwide by 2030. Compare that commitment in Copenhagen for developing countries to receive only $30 billion over three years. Compare that to the $700 billion bailout for the US banks.
  4. Equity in terms of fundamentally confronting the gigaton gap of greenhouse gases. The “gap” is the amount in gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions that differs between a “business as usual” pathway that we’re now on and a projected pathway of 450 ppm of CO2 by 2030. So far, it hardly looks like we will make it. Reducing these emissions will play a role in slowing down the increase in the average global temperature, which currently looks to be a jump of 2 degrees by the end of the century, and perhaps more.
Mr. Athanasiou  began by reassuring us that “We are not DOOMED!” We still have time, we have plenty of money (or at least somebody does), we have the technology to save ourselves. The only thing holding us back is that we have a little political problem, something Al Gore said on that same stage a few months back. Framing Copenhagen as disaster is too negative, said Mr. Athanasiou: it was the coming out of the global climate movement.

The first view of a full Earth
He went on to say that the environmental movement is an important one, but is not nearly strong enough to engage the climate issue effectively. “We have to become much more than we have been,” he added. “If we were looking to environmental movement to solve the crisis, we might as well head for the bar.” Echoing what the moderator said a few minutes earlier, he labelled the crisis as an equity problem. Understanding it as such opens up the opportunity to address it as an equity issue. He proposed that the right to development is a good framework for organizing our thoughts. Citing the example of the carbon debt, he brought up the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. The principle draws attention to responsibilities of states rather than capabilities of actors. Capabilities draw attention to class and infrastructure, but examples such as the floods in Pakistan – openly being attributed to climate change – are clear indicators that states have common responsibilities to address climate change disasters.

Judith Pasimio pointed out that the Philippines contributes to less than 1 percent of climate change gases, yet is one of the most vulnerable countries affected by climate change. Speaking as a woman activist, she highlighted how climate change has had an adverse impact on women in rural and indigenous communities. They are more vulnerable, have less access to productive resources, the lands on which they work are destroyed or taken away by development projects, they are more economically marginalized, and they face increased pressure to find ways to get food.

Steven Gilbault, a man whose passion and commitment to the environment is apparent through the energy and conviction with which he speaks, brought the Canadian government to task on its inability to recognize the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. He pointed out that civil society in Canada should have taken a more active role in making sure Canada respected the Kyoto Protocol.

Having governments renege or fail to live to up commitments for climate justice was the starting point of Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace. He said, “We wanted a FAB treaty at the end of Copenhagen. Not fab in the sense of fabulous, but FAB in the sense of Fair, Ambitious, and Binding.”
  • Fair speaks to climate justice – those least responsible pay the greatest price. Ensure that poor countries are able to adapt. Money should be additional, predictable and flexible. Money to the poor is usually regurgitated money.
  • Ambitious is not simply taking steps in the right direction, but it’s also doing what the science informs us about climate change and helps us with actions.
  • Binding: We simply just cannot trust our governments to implement that which is not legally binding.
Disappointingly, Naidoo said we ended up with “FLAB”: “Full of Loopholes And Bullshit.” After this he tellingly told the audience, “We don’t have a plan B because we don’t have a planet B.”

Disappearing Lake Chad.
The climate justice issue is, simply put, a human rights issue. The crisis in Darfur has been perceived as an ethnic conflict, but mired within the ethnic and political tensions are about 2.7 million internally displaced people who have had to fight over scarce water sources. People around Lake Chad are no different: the near-disappearance of the lake over the past decades has devastated countless communities: not only is it a lack of water, but also diminishing health, little or no income for fisherfolks and their families, increasingly decrepit sanitation conditions, insufficient water for cooking food…the list goes on. Climate justice and human rights are inextricably linked to each other.

The struggle for climate justice offers a powerful opportunity crisis or opportunity, depending on our actions.  One of the many aspects which resonated with me during the assembly was the necessity – the urgency – for civil society to share expertise, to find common ground, to creative build alliances and to act decisively and passionately to engage those in power who have the obligations to respect, protect and fulfill rights as much as we engage those whose rights are being violated. Civil society plays a significant but so far fractured conglomeration of like-minded and willing individuals who do want to change the world. Leaving the assembly last night, I had a positive sense that we were moving in that direction.
Banner to be brought to the UN meeting on the MDGs in September 2010

There was a great deal more that went on that day. I’d attended an informative workshop on climate change and human rights presented by Béatrice Vaugrante of the French section of Amnesty International here in Montreal and Karel Mayrand of the David Suzuki Foundation and The Climate Project. There was also a parallel event hosted by Citizenshift on new technologies and the media which I attended (but will blog about another time!). More info on that can be found here. The new Secretary General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, also gave a few words to bring the Assembly to a close (in an interview here in Montreal, he said “Canada worries us,” in reference to the government’s actions to restrict or fail to protect the rights of Canadian citizens).

My contribution to the banner
Now that it’s over, there’s a lot to reflect on, are a lot of people to keep in touch with, a lot of opportunities for exchange, and nothing that’s stopping us from moving ahead and making a change.