Besieged head of rights group says staff funded anti-Israel organizations

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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OTTAWA - The embattled chairman of a government-funded rights advocacy group is speaking out in his own defence after angry staff unanimously called for him to quit.
Aurel Braun, a professor at the University of Toronto, says there were all kinds of problems with accountability and that Rights and Democracy's funding of "toxic" anti-Israeli organizations was just one major example.
"The central issue is accountability and fairness and impartiality," Braun told The Canadian Press in an interview Wednesday.
"We cannot just take biased views. We cannot just say we'll pick a side in some dispute. We need to be careful that we don't get into providing funds that the Canadian people would find offensive."
His comments came as seven Conservative-appointed members of the board of Rights and Democracy, including Braun, published an op-ed piece in the National Post newspaper that said their concern was to ensure Canadian taxpayers "need not be embarrassed" by the organization's work.
Rights and Democracy, a 20-year-old, government-funded rights advocacy agency, has been in turmoil since its president Remy Beauregard died suddenly following a vitriolic board meeting on Jan. 7.
The agency was created by an act of Parliament in 1988 under the government of prime minister Brian Mulroney. It delivers programs that support human rights and democracy in many problematic countries, including Afghanistan, Burma, China, the Congo, Haiti and Zimbabwe.
The National Post op-ed singled out modest, discretionary funding of three "questionable organizations" in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel that, suggested the authors, "most taxpayers and most political leaders would find appalling."
The $10,000 stipends allotted to Al Haq, Al Mazan and BT selem - all human rights organizations that have criticized both Israeli and Palestinian policies - came out of Rights and Democracy's annual $11 million in federal funding.
Braun, in the interview, likened the groups to "extremists" and terrorists.
"We're not talking about critics of Israel," he said. "We are looking, in the case of Al Haq and Al Mazan, at two toxic organizations that are at the forefront of demonizing and dehumanizing Israel."
Braun and the board's op-ed piece appeared on the same day that the Jerusalem Post ran an article praising the "government in Ottawa" for ending funding to the non-governmental organization Kairos and for appointing new board members to Rights and Democracy to end the "anti-Israel demonization process."
Nonetheless, Braun downplayed the significance of the three minor funding decisions in his overall critique of the agency.
"I did not say this was the dominant issue. It was a major issue," he said. "There were all sorts of other issues of accountability. I can give you instance after instance after instance."
Braun cited an annual report to Parliament, for which he wrote a cover letter, that was tabled before he could vet it, despite specifically asking for a copy in advance.
"Can you think of any organization that would deem that to be acceptable accountability?" asked Braun. "The board collectively was cut out of the loop."
However Payam Akhavan, another Conservative appointee who quit the board earlier this month, said Braun's assertion of the board being stonewalled was "absolutely false."
Akhavan, a McGill University law professor who specializes in human rights, said the real dispute is not over Israel and Gaza - where the agency has virtually no presence - but rather control of Rights and Democracy's day-to-day operations, and a board that was trying to "usurp power" and "micro manage."
Akhavan said raising the anti-Israel card is part of a "concerted campaign" by the board to polarize public opinion about the agency.

Organizations: National Post, University of Toronto, Canadian Press Jerusalem Post McGill University

Geographic location: Israel, OTTAWA, Gaza Afghanistan Burma China Congo Haiti Zimbabwe West Bank

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