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TORONTO—An internal struggle over funding human rights groups that are critical of Israel was waged behind closed doors at the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, commonly known as Rights and Democracy (R&D).
After a January 7 board meeting, that battle was thrust into the public eye.
A newly appointed member of the board, David Matas, who is also legal counsel for right-wing B'nai B'rith Canada, brought forward a motion to repudiate the funding to one Israeli and two Palestinian human rights groups.
“These organizations were all on the same side: critical of Israel,” he told The Dominion.
Remy Beauregard, President of R&D, had previously supported these grants, but at the meeting he switched his position and the vote passed unanimously, with one abstention.
That night Beauregard died of a heart attack. His widow would blame his death on stress and the “harassment” he suffered at the hands of the board. Four days after his death, nearly the entire staff of the organization wrote a letter demanding that three members of the board resign.
“Your complete misunderstanding of your role as directors of Rights and Democracy makes you unfit to remain on the board of directors," they said. The letter was addressed to the same members of the board who were pushing to have Beauregard removed as president of R&D, and who had written an unfavourable performance review of Beauregard in the Spring of 2009.
While R&D is often perceived as a non-governmental organization (NGO), the federal government funds the group and makes appointments to the Board of Directors. In November, the feds appointed Matas and Michael Van Pelt to the board. This shifted the composition of the board, weighting it in opposition of R&D’s funding to groups in Israel and Palestine.
Warren Allmand, a former president of R&D, believes the Conservatives were stacking the board.
“If you want to effect that kind of change at a place like Rights and Democracy, you look for people who have that point of view. You don't give them instructions; you know what they stand for already,” he said.
The January 7 board meeting was the first since the new government appointments. Different versions of what happened at the meeting emerged: Canadian Press called the meeting “vitriolic,” while Matas, who was at the meeting, called it “calm, polite [and] orderly,” noting the only thing that was “unusual was that two [board members] quit and walked out. ”
Matas said he believes when Beauregard voted in favour of repudiating the grants to the three human rights groups he had genuinely changed his mind.
“When Beauregard went to bed the night, he died with the realization that those three grants which he had spent so much time and effort defending...were wrongly made.” He also suggested a more cynical explanation might be that “Beauregard changed his views because of the shifting composition and majority in the board.”
R&D received over $11 million from the federal government in 2009, and spends millions of dollars on grants and overseas charitable programs. The three grants at the centre of the controversy were for $10,000 each to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group with programs in Occupied Palestinian Terriories, and to Palestinian human rights groups Al Haq, based in the West Bank, and Al Mezan, based in Gaza. These groups all write reports on human rights abuses in Israel and Palestine. B'Tselem recently won an award for its program to facilitate citizen journalism by providing video cameras for Palestinians to document rights abuses and post those videos on YouTube.
All three groups have been criticized by NGO Monitor, an organization whose purpose is to expose the “anti-Israel agendas” of other NGOs. It was originally a joint project of B’nai B'rith International and the Institute for Contemporary Affairs, but Monitor is now an independent NGO.
The repudiation of the three grants took place in the context of a series of events since the Gaza War, a conflict which began in December 2008 and lasted three weeks. During that time, over 1,000 rockets were fired into Israel and numerous airstrikes, missiles and ground troops attacked the Gaza Strip. All sides agree that 13 Israelis and over 1,000 Palestinians died.
After a ceasefire, many groups believed Gaza was suffering a humanitarian crisis. In February 2009, R&D approved the grants to B'Tselem, Al Haq, and Al Mezan. Allmand claims that before dispersing these funds the staff at R&D checked and found the groups “had also received money over the last few years from CIDA [the Canadian International Development Agency] and the Department of Foreign Affairs.”
The United Nations launched a fact-finding mission on the conflict in Gaza in April 2009, and in September it released the Goldstone Report. Human rights groups had contributed much testimony to the report, which accused Israel of war crimes.
NGO Monitor was one of many groups that criticized the report for relying on the testimony from NGOs they consider biased against Israel. Im Tirtzu, an Israeli ultra-nationalist group, recently placed a controversial ad in the Jerusalem Post which targeted the New Israel Fund (NIF), a group that fundraises in the West for human rights groups operating inside Israel, including B'Tselem.
The Israeli government is also cracking down on human rights groups. The Israeli newspaper Haartz reported in January that the Interior Ministry has stopped issuing work visas to foreign nationals who work in NGOs.
In an August 2009 story in US magazine Counterpunch, Jonathan Cook wrote, “Israel's foreign ministry...has issued instructions to all its embassies abroad to question their host governments about whether they fund such activities.”
The Israeli Embassy in Canada refused to comment on this statement.
Other shifts in the funding of Canadian NGOs have taken place. Alternatives—a left-leaning NGO based in Montreal—and KAIROS—a church-based NGO that promotes social justice—have not had their CIDA funding renewed. While Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda claimed the groups did not meet CIDA's new priorities, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney had a different explanation.
On a trip to Israel in December he explained how the Canadian government was combating anti-Semitism.
“We have defunded organizations, most recently KAIROS, who have been taking a leading role in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] Campaign.”
Mary Corkery, Executive Director of KAIROS, said KAIROS is not a leader of the BDS Campaign, and that the group's stance supports some ideas behind the campaign and not others.
“It needs to be taken back,” she said, referring to Kenney's remarks. “The real issue for us is that he said the way he is combating anti-Semitism is by cutting our funding.” KAIROS has asked Kenney for a retraction of his statements. So far none has been made.
“In conversations that we have had with other NGOs it has of course created a chill,” said Corkery. “There is fear of being in support of Palestinian people and groups, who essentially are struggling for land and livelihood.”
Asked which groups were feeling this pressure, she responded, “The chill is such that people don't want to be named.”
“The policy of the Canadian government in terms of Israel and Palestine has changed but there hasn't been a public discussion about that,” said Corkery, referring to the strong pro-Israel stances the Harper government has taken since being elected.
“That has definitely affected [R&D],” she said.
While the controversy at R&D swirls around funding to groups in the Middle East, it remains unclear if this signals an attempt by the Canadian government to align all international NGO funding with government policy.
“I think they are quite open about that; my understanding is that the government wants to align volunteer sector aid ... [with] defence and trade,” said Corkery.
Solidarity activists in Haiti have already seen R&D as advancing Canadian foreign policy agendas. R&D supported and legitimized the 2004 coup that overthrew Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. However, activists in solidarity with Colombia have noted R&D supports groups that denounce both President Uribe and the proposed Canada–Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
Matas said he believes the dispute at R&D is specifically about the group's role in the Middle East. “Elsewhere in the world I can't see any change as a result of this controversy. ”
However, with respect to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon—which were led by foreign-funded NGOs—he acknowledged the political objectives of R&D.
“The notion that Canada might be seen to be independent of NGOs it finances through an arm's length organization has become illusory in light of the heightened suspicion of that sort of funding. The political objective of appearance of non-interference intended by the arm's length relationship is no longer attainable through a structure like Rights and Democracy,” he said.
Allmand sees the dispute at R&D as part of the Conservative Government's broader approach.
“Either by refusing or cutting funding, stacking boards, or refusing to cooperate, they’re cutting back on organizations that are supposed to be arm's length,” he said. “They're using these oganizations in partisan ways.”
Tim Groves is an investigative researcher and journalist based in Toronto.
Carmelle Wolfson provided files for this story. Wolfson is a Canadian journalist based in Israel/Palestine and an editor at The Daily Nuisance.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.