A losing battle

PAUL WELLS: How the late president of Rights and Democracy tried to fight back

A Losing Battle

Last June, Rémy Beauregard, the president of a federal government-funded human rights organization called Rights and Democracy, read aloud to his fellow board members from a long memo he had written. The memo was his response to an evaluation of his job performance written by two members of the federal government-appointed board, Jacques Gauthier and Elliot Tepper. The board’s chairman, Aurel Braun, had sent along his own note endorsing the evaluation, which was highly critical of Beauregard.

Beauregard was responding now, in June, because it had taken three months for him to get his hands on the evaluation. Braun, Gauthier and Tepper had sent it to the federal government without showing it to Beau­regard. They had fought his attempts to get a copy of his own job evaluation for months, incurring hefty legal bills. Finally, Beauregard submitted a request to the Foreign Affairs Department for his personal information under the Privacy Act. Braun, Tepper and Gauthier were shocked when Beauregard showed up with a copy of their handiwork and started reading his response.

Beauregard’s written response to the performance evaluation, obtained by Maclean’s and revealed here for the first time, makes clear the extent to which this extraordinary controversy at Rights and Democracy was about the stance the organization, and by extension the government of Canada, should take with regard to Israel. Beauregard got into trouble with Braun and the others for disbursing grants that seemed to take sides in the Middle East conflict. Paradoxically, the Rights and Democracy board is now predominantly composed of people who have devoted much of their life to an unequivocal position: that no legal challenge to Israel’s human rights record is permissible, because any such challenge is part of a global harassment campaign against Israel’s right to exist.

For the longest time this wholesale transformation at Rights and Democracy seemed like it would escape public attention. Then came the astonishing events of January.

That’s when Rémy Beauregard died in his sleep after another deeply acrimonious meeting of the Rights and Democracy board, at which Braun’s faction for the first time held a voting majority. At that meeting, one member of the board who had been critical of Braun lost a vote to have his mandate renewed. Two more immediately quit in disgust.

Within days, the federal government received a letter signed by almost every member of the Rights and Democracy staff, calling for the removal of Braun, Gauthier and Tepper from the board. The letter was leaked to reporters, forcing the internal dispute into the open. But the three board members remained in place. Matching the staff’s act of defiance with its own, the board met again and appointed Gauthier as interim president. The next day, while most Rights and Democracy employees were attending Beauregard’s funeral in Ottawa, there was a break-in at the Montreal office. Two laptop computers were stolen. Police are still investigating.

After the burglary, Braun, a University of Toronto professor of international relations who was named to the Rights and Democracy board in March 2009, told employees they could not speak publicly about the organization without prior written approval from him. A few days later, Gauthier arrived at the Rights and Democracy office and began questioning employees about their behaviour. He was accompanied by a man he identified as Claude Sarrazin, “a business associate.” It was only by looking on the Internet later that staff members were able to learn Sarrazin is a private investigator who specializes in computer crime. Gauthier told three members of the staff they were suspended with pay until further notice, pending an investigation into their role in the suddenly very public controversy.

But that’s January. Back in June, Beauregard still viewed Braun and his allies on the 13-member board as a minority. Only two members of the board, Gauthier and Tepper, had signed the evaluation, and only Braun had written a memo endorsing it. Another member of the evaluation committee—Donica Pottie, a senior Foreign Affairs bureaucrat who sat on the board as the federal government’s direct representative—“was left out completely,” Beauregard wrote. Three months later Pottie would resign from the Rights and Democracy board altogether. She did not return a reporter’s telephone call for comment and the government has not yet appointed anyone to replace her.

Beauregard went through his colleagues’ criticism of him point by point. Tepper, Gauthier and Braun accused Beauregard of seeking accreditation for Rights and Democracy at the April 2009 World Conference Against Racism. This was the so-called Durban Review Conference, a follow-up in Geneva to the United Nations’ lurid and toxic 2001 Durban conference in South Africa, which had degenerated into a multinational attack on Israel. “This is wrong,” Beauregard wrote. “We never requested accreditation to the Durban Review Conference, nor did we attend the conference as an observer.”

Next, Beauregard’s critics denounced him for a “missed opportunity”: failing to condemn Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for his virulently anti-Israel speech to the Geneva conference. Beauregard responded: “It would be incongruous to make a statement on an issue in which I, as president, decided that the institution would not be involved.”

But these were relatively minor skirmishes compared to the topic at the heart of the confrontation between Beauregard and Braun. After the January 2009 conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Beauregard had authorized a so-called “Urgent Action” project from discretionary funds to document any human rights violations in Gaza. The grants, $10,000 each, went to three groups in the area: B’Tselem in Israel, Al-Haq in Ramallah in the West Bank, and Al-Mezan in Gaza. The evaluation of Beauregard said Al-Haq’s director general, Shawan Jabarin, “was found to be a senior member of the terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, by the Supreme Court of Israel and many other organizations.”

Here, too, Beauregard saw things differently. All three of the recipient organizations “are seen as credible by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Dutch foreign minister,” he said. Jabarin hadn’t been a member of the PFLP since 1987. Israeli human-rights groups had protested the travel ban on him. Israel’s top court had imposed the ban after a trial in which Jabarin was forbidden, under anti-terrorism laws, to hear or reply to the evidence against him. Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae had met with Al-Haq in Ramallah on March 14, coincidentally only four days after Braun’s appointment to the Rights and Democracy board.

Along with the formal evaluation by Gauthier and Tepper, and Braun’s memo, the government had also received, and returned to Beauregard, another memo by Jacques Gauthier. In many ways this was the most upsetting to Beauregard. It included Gauthier’s claim that “while attending a conference in Cairo in the fall of 2008, Mr. Beauregard met with representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah.”

“This is patently false, and I consider it an attack on my reputation,” Beauregard replied.

“Finally, a section of this memo is the most troubling to me,” Beauregard wrote. During an informal dinner chat in March with a Rights and Democracy employee, Gauthier and the employee had asked about each other’s background. “I was also very surprised,” Gauthier wrote, “to be informed subsequently that there are no Jewish employees in the office of R&D in Montreal.”

This left Beauregard livid. “It is completely unacceptable for a member of the board to inquire about the ethnicity and/or religious affiliation of staff members,” he wrote, “especially for a human rights organization. When the union learns about this and when we know more about how Mr. Gauthier investigated the religious affiliations of our staff, all hell will break loose.”

Maclean’s emailed Braun and Gauthier at 12:14 on the afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 9, with a list of questions pertaining to the allegations in Beauregard’s document. Each wrote back several hours later, saying it was impossible to reply before that evening’s publication deadline for this issue of the magazine. “The assumptions behind your questions are in large part demonstrably wrong, misleading, incomplete and/or distorted and I caution you against publishing an article based on them,” Gauthier wrote.

Reading Beauregard’s comments, it is not hard to spot a general tone of disbelief at his surreal predicament. He had spent 40 years working in government and non-profit organizations, after all, often in human rights. In 1986 he became the first person to run Ontario’s Office of Francophone Affairs, trying to figure out how to extend services to the province’s French-language minority. His work in that post has made him a nearly heroic figure among Franco-Ontarians. Later he ran the Ontario Human Rights Commission before working on a new constitution for Rwanda and human rights legislation for the Democratic Republic of Congao. He’d seen his share of tough fights.

But he’d never seen anything like this. His antagonists on the board were accusing him—in a secret memo they had fought to keep out of his hands—of failing to “improve the communications and interactions” between his office and the board. In his accompanying memo, Braun wrote that all this was “constructive criticism and it is hoped that it will be viewed in that light by Mr. Beauregard.” Braun had then spent three months trying to ensure Beauregard would not be permitted to view it in any light at all.

That was the June meeting. Donica Pottie, the government representative, resigned from the board in September. Still short of a workable voting majority, Braun cancelled the October board meeting on two days’ notice. Three weeks later, the government appointed two new board members, Michael Van Pelt and David Matas. Van Pelt runs a Christian-oriented think tank. Matas is a former federal Liberal candidate who volunteers as legal counsel with B’nai Brith Canada.

Beauregard realized he was losing allies inside Rights and Democracy. He made a futile attempt to get help from outside. On Nov. 3, he wrote a desperate letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon about the “profound divisions” at Rights and Democracy. “This situation cannot last,” he said. “I would like to meet you as soon as it will be possible for you to discuss this.”

Beauregard had reason to hope Cannon would pay attention. Beauregard and Cannon’s chief of staff, Paul Terrien, had been friends since university. But Cannon never answered Beauregard’s letter. This week he told Maclean’s he does not recall seeing it.

When the board finally met again in January, Matas, who had already served on the board in the 1990s, and Van Pelt showed themselves to be reliable allies of Braun, Gauthier and Tepper. The removal of another board member and the resignations of two more gave Braun an unbeatable majority. And then Rémy Beauregard died. Of course nobody can know whether he would have lived longer in other circumstances. But his death throws more public scrutiny on Rights and Democracy than any of the players expected.

Two public statements published simultaneously in Israel and Canada, days after Beauregard’s death, hint at the broader strategy behind the changes at Rights and Democracy. The first is an op-ed in the National Post signed by Braun and six of his allies on the board. Referring to the grants to Al-Haq, B’Tselem and Al-Mezat, they write that two of the groups “are active in the lawfare movement, which is a strategy of abusing law to achieve military objectives—in this case, to punish Israel for anti-terror operations.”

The same day in the Jerusalem Post, Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan university, published an op-ed congratulating the Canadian government for “reversing course” on a policy of abusing human rights and international law “as weapons to demonize Israel.” Steinberg mentioned the board changes at Rights and Democracy, and the federal government’s refusal to renew funding for an interfaith human-rights group called Kairos, as evidence of this trend.

Steinberg runs an organization called NGO Monitor, which diligently chronicles international criticism of Israel’s human rights record and portrays it as an attack against Israel’s right to exist. He is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, whose website reads in part: “Israel’s growth and survival are dependent on its winning the war of ideas. The challenges that Israel faces today are not only military. They extend to the United Nations, the mass media, foreign universities, and non-governmental organizations.”

Steinberg’s list of organizations he regards as anti-Israel is long. In one publication he decries CIDA aid to what he calls “extremist political groups” opposed to Israel, among which he counts Médecins du Monde, Oxfam, and the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada. Braun is a friend of Steinberg’s who sought to have him speak last year to the Rights and Democracy board. The board, as it was then composed, declined Braun’s offer. It would perhaps vote differently today.

There is room for a rich and ornery debate over all the issues raised by the Rights and Democracy controversy. Is every criticism of Israel’s human rights record an attack on its right to exist? Does it still make sense to maintain an arm’s-length relationship between a government like Canada’s and a quasi-NGO, funded entirely from federal coffers, like Rights and Democracy? Is this any way to run a human rights shop?

But the government of Stephen Harper has preferred action to debate at every step. It appointed every member of the Rights and Democracy board, including those who supported Beauregard. Indeed, the Harper government appointed Beauregard himself.

But with five board appointments in 2009, the government set out to transform the style and personality of the organization. And in the midst of the astonishing uproar that has followed Beauregard’s death, Foreign Affairs Minister Cannon has stayed mute on the issues at the centre of the controversy. Three months after Beauregard wrote him to complain about Braun’s behaviour, Cannon finally met privately with Braun.

Stephen Harper used to complain that Liberals made policy changes this way: with strategic appointments of people who would take positions more extreme than any government facing a Parliament ever would, and strategic silence when those appointees went about the business of promoting their agendas. It turns out he was doing more than complain. He was learning lessons he would apply when his own time came.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.