This page is in the midst of a redesign. If you see anything that looks like a bug, please let me know!

Evidence of meeting #40 for Subcommittee on International Human Rights in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was women's.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Susan Bazilli  Director, International Women's Rights Project
Irwin Cotler  Founding Chair, Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

1:45 p.m.

NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

Yes, absolutely.

1:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Thank you, MP Johns.

We are now going to go to MP Khalid.

1:45 p.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

Thank you, Chair.

I'd like to divide my time with MP Sweet, if that's okay, because I think we may be running out.

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

It certainly is.

December 8th, 2016 / 1:50 p.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

Thank you.

Thank you very much for coming here today, Professor Cotler, and thank you, Ms. Bazilli, for being here. It has been really strong testimony, and we really appreciate all that you do.

We've heard testimony over the past year, I would say, on the importance of involving locals and grassroots organizations in any area where human rights are under threat or are being violated in a very major way. Can you please describe anything that your organization, Ms. Bazilli, is doing with respect to empowering locals on the ground in conflict areas or in areas where there's a high level of human rights violations?

1:50 p.m.

Director, International Women's Rights Project

Susan Bazilli

I think that the reason I wanted to focus on some of the things that Canada could do was to focus on the importance of grassroots organizations and their need for resources and funding.

That 40-year and 70-country study that I talked about, by Htun and Weldon from 2012, really showed us what in fact many of us already knew, which is that it was the front-line grassroots organizations that knew their community best and that could advocate best for the things that needed to be changed to address discrimination against women and to empower women to address human rights violations writ large.

I think the most important thing that I can do is to advocate in Canada for greater resources and funding from our government presently, in order to be able to support these organizations globally. It's much better for us to be able to create long-term sustainable partnerships with the organizations that are actually doing the work. That makes much more sense and is much more authentic than my going to somebody else's country.

I think that a lot of the work I need to do is to advocate on behalf of women's organizations globally, but by doing it within my own country and doing it at the global level, such as at the UN and other bilateral institutions.

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

Thank you.

In countries or states where there's a high level of human rights violations, is there a correlation, or a common thread or theme, with regard to the level of literacy in that region or that country?

1:50 p.m.

Director, International Women's Rights Project

Susan Bazilli

In countries in conflict, the biggest correlation is actually between the level of state violence and the biggest human rights violations, particularly when it comes to places such as the DRC, for example, in terms of sexual and gender-based violence.

In terms of literacy, I don't know the statistics on that, but certainly we know that the best way to empower women is to send girls to school to empower girls to empower women, and the best way to protect children in any society is to protect the mothers and to empower the mothers.

For example, we know that there are still massive human rights violations against girls in Afghanistan and that the literacy rate in Afghanistan has been extremely low, but there are fantastic organizations, such as Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, that are doing everything they can to train women teachers and to change that correlation between lack of literacy and lack of girls' empowerment.

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

With that, I think we'll turn it over to MP Sweet for the last question.

1:50 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Flamborough—Glanbrook, ON

Thanks, Chair, and thanks, Ms. Khalid.

Chair, please give me a bit of latitude, because it's been a while since I've seen my colleague, Professor Cotler, and I think it's important to put on the record an item that we worked on for I think a good five years.

The MEK, or the People's Mujahedin, suffered greatly in the camp called Camp Ashraf. They were moved after that to Camp Liberty. We had many opportunities to hear witnesses. I think we would be able to say that we played a small role in making sure that today—although we left many meetings very concerned about their safety—they're now re-established in Albania and are now experiencing freedom.

I wanted to give you credit, Professor Cotler, for the work you did in that regard, and for the number of times that we called witnesses and did joint statements. That's more of a good reason for you to stay optimistic in that regard.

It's important to note here, too, Chair, that this little country, Albania, also has a special exhibit in Yad Vashem as the only Muslim country that had more Jews after the Second World War than before, and it is credited with saving many Jewish lives. I wanted to also mention that.

This will be for both witnesses, but it's inspired by, again, another event that happened with Professor Cotler. I mentioned this a few meetings ago.

We were doing a press conference about another country where many human rights abuses were happening. I don't recall the country, but we were doing a press conference together. One journalist showed up. After we did the conference and had explained the catastrophic things that were happening there, the journalist asked, “Well, what are you guys going to do about it?” Professor Cotler asked, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”

We've witnessed this for all the time we've been on the Subcommittee on International Human Rights: the mainstream media are almost ignorant in regard to the catastrophic human tragedy of human rights abuses. They are very much under-represented.

I thought as my only question I would ask both witnesses, Chair, if there's anything that they think.... I mean, I understand that social media have certainly filled some of the gap that mainstream media have ignored in regard to human rights abuses around the world, but could you tell us if there is a way to get more of the attention of the mainstream media? A large percentage of people around the world are educated solely by the mainstream media on current events. Is there a way for us to get their attention and use the mainstream media more effectively?

1:55 p.m.

Founding Chair, Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

Irwin Cotler

I think the human rights defender is a looking glass, not only into their particular plight and the governments that victimize them but also as a way to get the media engaged. You give them a face, an identity, someone around whom they can be engaged. Otherwise, you have the abstraction of violence, but you don't put a face on it. That's why the specific human rights defender can be a looking glass.

To get back to a question that was asked, and with that I'll close, how do we involve grassroots organizations in a concerted way to build up that critical mass of advocacy that can help engage the media? Number one, Parliament can work with interparliamentary groups in that regard. Whether it be the OSCE, the IPU, or the like, interparliamentary groups can also engage the media.

Two, work with NGOs such as Freedom Now, which works specifically with political prisoners, or Amnesty International.

Three, work with bar associations. The Law Society of Upper Canada has a group now specifically with regard to human rights defenders.

Four, student groups can help energize advocacy. Media sometimes are less cynical when it's a student group, so they are an important group.

I remember, David, when you said about the media that sometimes one person shows up and sometimes no people show up, as you know. You have to be engaged in sustained advocacy. They may not come to one press conference, but they may come to the next.

Next is women's groups. I find that women are excellent foot soldiers in the struggle for human rights. They are excellent advocates. They have their own media, as well, and access that can help in that regard.

Finally, we should always remember that for those who are imprisoned, we need to let them know in whatever way we can, using all the communications devices available, that they are not alone, that we stand in solidarity with them, and that we will not relent in our advocacy until they are freed. Every political prisoner with whom I've worked has told me that they always knew when there was advocacy on their behalf. They'd be moved to a better cell out of solitary confinement, or somebody like the Red Cross would be allowed to visit them, or they would be ultimately released. We have to make the case to those who are in prison, while they are in prison, in the best way we can, utilizing all the means at our disposal. We have to let the media know, as you put it, David, that they have a responsibility in that regard.

2 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Ms. Bazilli, we're down to literally the last 30 seconds, but I'd love to give you the last word if you'd like to add something.

2 p.m.

Director, International Women's Rights Project

Susan Bazilli

I guess it didn't come out in my bio that I spent half of the eighties and nineties working for Lawyers for Human Rights in South Africa. Having lived through those days gives me the right to be optimistic.

Remember, we didn't have social media. We had an anti-apartheid movement that in many ways was led by solidarity by Canadians in Canada, and we didn't require social media to do that, so I think we actually need to use our old tactics with new technology.

I know the time is up. Thank you.

2 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Thank you for that.

2 p.m.

Founding Chair, Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

Irwin Cotler

The first group that hosted me in South Africa in the anti-apartheid movement days, in 1981, was Lawyers for Human Rights, whose president at the time was Jules Browde. He was a great anti-apartheid activist who recently passed away, and it's worth recalling him and worth celebrating his great life.

2 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Thank you very much.

I'm sure everybody in this room, and every member of this committee, wishes we had two hours to continue to hear from you on what has been a remarkable discussion. Thank you so much to you both. I think it's been a most fitting tribute and a recognition of International Human Rights Defenders Day, which is coming up.

I thank you both for all your efforts here and around the world, and for making yourselves available to come and present to us here today.

With that, the meeting is adjourned.