|Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion (L) and P.M. Justin Trudeau (R)|
It's not exactly a pardon from the governor, but the Liberal government says it will automatically plead for the lives of Canadians sentenced to death in the United States and any other country abroad.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion announced the change on Monday as he met with the United Nations' top human rights official.
The move effectively reverses 1 of the previous Conservative government's earliest and most contentious foreign policies.
Dion also revealed plans to travel to Geneva at the end of the month to address the UN Human Rights Council, as Canada looks to re-engage with - and, some hope, help reform - its troubled human rights system.
Successive Canadian governments had automatically sought clemency for Canadians sentenced to death by a foreign court. But that came to an end in 2007, when the Conservative government said it would begin asking for clemency on a case-by-case basis.
The Conservatives said Canadians who commit crimes such as murder in a democratic country that adheres to the rule of law should not count on the government to help. Human rights groups and opposition parties said the Conservatives were effectively condoning the death penalty, which Canada abolished in 1976.
In an interview Monday, Dion accused the Conservatives of "sending the message that Canada was not very sure we were against the death penalty, because we were ready to accept the death penalty under some circumstances. We were picking and choosing."
In order to be able to maximize the possibility that you will get clemency for some, you need to ask for clemency for all.
Aside from running contrary to domestic policy in Canada, Dion said the Conservatives' position made it more difficult to successfully advocate for clemency in those situations when the government decided to act.
"Our credibility to be able to get clemency was negatively affected," he said. "In order to be able to maximize the possibility that you will get clemency for some, you need to ask for clemency for all."
Dion was extremely critical of capital punishment during the interview. Aside from the risk of innocent people being mistakenly sentenced to die, he said the death penalty "is not something that should be done in a civilized society, because a civilized society is looking for justice and not vengeance."
Some will interpret that as criticism of the U.S. But Dion defended his comment, noting that "many Americans will agree with me." He added that the majority of states don't execute inmates. While the death penalty is legal in 31 states, moratoriums are in place in 20.
Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International Canada, applauded the government's move, calling it a "renewal" of Canada's commitment to human rights abroad. He said the 1st beneficiary should be Ronald Smith, an Alberta man on death row in Montana whose case was directly affected by the Tories' policy.
Dion also announced that Canada will be redoubling its support for the UN's controversial human rights system, as he hosted UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. It was the 1st such visit by the UN's top human rights official since 2006.
The United Nations is not a perfect institution ... But in order to improve the situation, Canada must be there.
Canada will contribute $15 million over 3 years to help UN Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which Al Hussein heads, investigate and report on human rights violations abroad. That is about double what Canada has given each year since 2013.
Dion also said he plans to travel to Geneva at the end of the month to address the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR), which has been steeped in controversy since it was established in 2006.
Ostensibly the UN's leading organization for advancing human rights abroad, the council came under fire in September after members elected Saudi Arabia as its chair. The council has also spent a disproportionate amount of time and energy condemning Israel, while ignoring human rights violations elsewhere.
"The United Nations is not a perfect institution," Dion acknowledged. "There are shortcomings everywhere, including with this human rights institution. But in order to improve the situation, Canada must be there. This idea that if it's not what we want, we'll pull out, has been a mistake that we need to stop."
Shimon Fogel, head of the Centre for Jewish and Israel Affairs, said his organization remains deeply concerned about the council's "skewed and politicized character." He urged the government to adopt an "aggressive initiative," with Canada leading efforts to reform the UN's entire human right system.
"We would hope and expect that (Dion) would set out the necessary steps to bring the UNHCR to a new, credible level of contributing to international peace and universal respect for human rights," Fogel said, "thereby earning the confidence of those who truly care about the protection of those rights."
Ssource: National Post, February 16, 2016