The criminalization of dissent

The criminalization of dissent

Article 1. Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.

— Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Adopted by General Assembly resolution 53/144 of Dec. 9, 1998

While freedom of speech and the right to organize politically are recognized human rights, the sphere of operation for those who do not agree with governments is shrinking both at home and abroad.

In Canada, gone are the days of being able to oppose one’s government without the fear of being silenced. Lawful demonstrations during the G-20 summit in 2010 resulted in a rash of arrests, as well as unlawful “kettling” of innocent citizens participating in the event. The Canadian International Development Agency failed to renew development contracts for NGOs that disagreed with particular policies. The Canada Revenue Agency will remove an organization’s status as a charity if it deems its work to be political.

Most recently, the criminalization of dissent has been noted in Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy unveiled by Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews in 2011. In “Building Resilience Against Terrorism,” under the main heading “The Terrorist Threat,” the strategy document lists environmentalism and anti-capitalism as examples of “domestic issue-based extremism.”

So, how did we get here? According to Roch Tassé, national co-ordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group who has been carefully tracking the change in attitude of the federal government through various reports and initiatives, it is clear there is now a greater alignment between government and corporations. The focus on economic growth is their common interest.

The federal government, in particular, has been engaged in a disciplined communications strategy whereby it constantly and consistently messages to Canadians that economic interests, meaning economic growth, are the same as national interests. The language of post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism legislation created to counter terrorist activities that threatened our national interests is now being used to allow government police agencies to spy on those who speak against corporate interests, particularly in relation to the extractive industries.

In other countries, Canadian NGOs are witnessing even more aggressive tactics being used against human rights defenders. They have heard stories of people whose governments have turned their backs on them, allowed their rivers to become polluted, allowed their children to become ill, and have no interest in their well-being. And when an individual has the temerity to complain and then organize her community to demand change, she is targeted to be silenced. It is not unusual for human rights defenders to be killed, for their families to be threatened, and for both family and community members to be in conflict with them.

Physical violence used to be the norm and is still not unusual. However, more recently, and especially because many human rights defenders are women and there is greater media documentation, the tactics have become more subtle. In a recent talk, Lolita Chavez, co-ordinator of the K’iche People’s Counsel, an indigenous human rights defender from Guatemala, spoke about how the law is used to wear people down, outside of the eye of the cameras, by creating false claims which must be answered and require money activists don’t have. It also take their time, which is then diverted from the community organizing essential to fight the corporations causing damage in their communities.

In some cases their families turn against them, and in others the rest of the community will distance themselves from the complainant. In effect, they are terrorized and suffer great psychological distress. Chavez said her people have a saying for this tactic: “taking the water away from the fish.”

The hand-in-glove relationship between the Canadian government and Canadian mining companies should cause concern in relation to the hardships we are creating, particularly in Latin America where indigenous peoples are rightly confounded by our desire to harm them when we are a rich country and live miles away. They worry, and rightly so, that their future and integrated understanding of reality is simply standing in the way of the North’s need to consume. Because they voice their disagreement both individually and in association with others, they are labelled criminals, justifying all the harsh treatment the state can throw at them.

In contrast to the North American and Latin American shifts towards the criminalization of dissent, the 2008 European Union guidelines for the protection of human rights defenders calls upon its missions to be active in monitoring, reporting, and assessing situations, as well as supporting and protecting human rights defenders. The guidelines describe the various ways its different operational arms can and should promote respect for human rights defenders in relations with third countries and in multilateral fora, support Special Procedures on the UN Human Rights Council, including the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and provide practical support for human rights defenders including through development policy.

The criminalization of dissent is so serious that in 2000 the United Nations decided to create a special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. For more information about this topic you may be interested in reading the 2011 Special Rapporteur’s Commentary to the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

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