The real trouble at Rights and Democracy

Sen. Linda Frum on the controversy; Paul Wells responds

Linda Frum
The real trouble at Rights and Democracy
Photograph by Andrew Wallace/ Toronto Star

Let’s say I gave you $11 million of Canadian taxpayer money and told you I wanted you to use the money to repair the ills of the world as you perceived them. Let’s say I told you that you could spend the money entirely as you saw fit. No questions asked. Odds are you would have little difficulty identifying your favourite causes in the most deserving regions of the world. Lovely fantasy isn’t it? Spending other people’s money to cure the troubles of the world, as you identify them, exactly the way you deem best? Well, for the senior managers of Rights and Democracy, Canada’s publicly funded human rights organization, this was no fantasy. It was a blissful reality. That is, until a group of pesky governors, burdened by such governance concepts as accountability and responsibility, came along to spoil the party.

If you have been following the controversy surrounding Rights and Democracy, a “short-arm” organization set up by prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1988 to promote human rights in the Third World, you know that the organization is in crisis.

Some claim that the crisis pits a professional management against a partisan board controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office. (That is the view, for example, of this magazine’s otherwise brilliant analyst Paul Wells.) But every key player in this story, on both sides, is a Harper appointee. And, as a short-arm organization, R and D is constitutionally autonomous of government but not independent of it. Each fiscal year, the chair of R and D is required to table a report with both houses of Parliament. In other words, R and D is not an arm’s-length, independent NGO.

To really understand what’s truly at issue here, you must go to the heart of the trouble.

It really heated up in March 2009 when newly appointed board chair, University of Toronto political science professor Aurel Braun, discovered questionable grants made by R and D’s president Remy Beauregard. One such grant was made to a group called Al Haq, based in Ramallah, West Bank. According to the Israeli Supreme Court, Al Haq’s leader is a senior activist of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist group. The $10,000 grant for Al Haq—distributed from a discretionary fund controlled by Beauregard and his management team—alarmed Braun and the majority of his current board. What other grants, they wondered, might be equally suspect? What about, for example, the $144,000 donated to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a sponsor of 2009’s scurrilous Durban II conference, which was boycotted by the government of Canada? What exactly was that $144,000 spent on? Or the several hundred thousand dollars that R and D sent to that UN office over the past few years?

Anyone who has ever served on a board knows that such inquiries on the part of a board chair and the audit and finance committee are necessary in order to fulfill the duty of “due diligence.” But to the managers of R and D—unaccustomed to any challenge to their authority and hostile to investigations into their pet projects—the board’s interest was deemed “harassment” and requests for “sensitive” information were rejected or stonewalled. To this day, management refuses to co-operate fully with an audit being conducted by the respected firm of Deloitte & Touche. Instead, they have launched a self-righteous campaign of media sniping and obfuscation—aided by the disappearance of managerial laptops and computer records.

The sudden death in January of Remy Beauregard has injected an element of sorrow to the situation, but it does not alter a public body’s duty to account for public money. By January 2010, even Beauregard finally came to the conclusion that giving money to Al Haq (and like organizations) was wrong and voted to repudiate it. But the staff he left behind remain resentful of the board’s scrutiny.

The R and D staff’s anger at the board’s curiosity suggests that something has gone very wrong at R and D. On March 29, Gerard Latulippe, an experienced administrative law and labour lawyer with professional expertise in promoting democratic accountability in the third world (most recently in Haiti), will take over as Rights and Democracy’s new president. He has the tough task of reforming an agency gone rogue long ago. Yes, some of the staff are complaining anonymously to the press. But the complaints do not prove them right. On the contrary, their complaints prove how very deep the problems go.

Linda Frum is a Conservative member of the Canadian Senate.

Read this response by Paul Wells, published Monday, March 22