New UN rights body no cause for optimism, says Bayefsky

Monitoring groups typically critical of the United Nations said there is little room for optimism about the new 47-seat Human Rights Council as about half the new members are non-democracies, according to the scale produced annually by US-based Freedom House, reported CanWest News Service May 10. “That’s an astonishing number of countries that have made it onto the UN’s primary human rights organ,” said Anne Bayefsky, editor of the online journal Eye on the UN, and a political science professor on leave from York’s Faculty of Arts. “That is bound to have an important impact on the credibility of this council.”

In her Editor’s Note for the May 9 edition of Eye on the UN, titled “Human Rights Council Elections: Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”, Bayefsky wrote:

The UN has now elected the Human Rights Council – its new lead human rights agency. Elected by the General Assembly, members include some of the world’s worst human rights abusers: China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Cameroon, Tunisia, Cuba, Azerbaijan and Russia. After the election, the length of the terms was selected by lot. China, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon, Cuba, Azerbaijan and Russia all got the maximum three years. A very large number, 21 of the 47elected states, fail to embody the minimum characteristics to be ranked “free” by Freedom House.

The election was conducted within the framework of the UN’s five regional groups, Bayefsky said. The African and Asian regional groups hold 55 per cent of the seats in the new council. Because 16 of the 26 members allotted to the Asian and African groups are not fully democratic, the election hands the balance of power in the new council to states which are not full democracies.

Heron calls Bishop’s Block preservation a ‘golden opportunity’

Toronto City Council approved a five-star hotel and a 50-storey office tower with almost no debate despite concerns from historians, including Craig Heron, professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, reported the National Post and The Globe and Mail May 10. Heron and his colleagues were worried about preserving the Bishop’s Block, one of the oldest surviving buildings in the downtown core. The site’s developer, Westbanks Projects Corporation, earned the support of the Toronto Preservation Board by promising to restore the building’s facade to its original appearance and preserve any artifacts found on the site. Because of extensive water and weather damage, the interior of the Bishop’s Block will be demolished and rebuilt. It will likely eventually be reopened as a restaurant or bar. Heron urged councillors to preserve as much of the existing building as possible. “This stands as a golden opportunity for bringing into being a heritage site that preserves the memory of the hotel industry,” Heron said before the vote.

Country singer credits her stage show to theatre studies at York

Christian country singer Kelita Haverland-Lemon grew up in what she thought was a normal family with three older brothers and one sister, reported the Tribune (Welland) May 10 in a feature story on the former York theatre student now known by her first name. Her older brother, who was 10 years her senior, had started sexually abusing her before she was old enough to go to school. At age 11, her mentally unstable alcoholic father committed suicide. Months later, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“My story can read like a soap opera,” said Kelita, who studied at York in the early ’80s. “I’ve had a very tragic past. Shortly after my father’s death, I sat down at the piano and wrote my first song.” Kelita fell into drug and alcohol abuse as her country singing career was taking off. It wasn’t until a car accident that Kelita realized she had a second chance at life. Since then, she has re-launched her career as a singer and performer with her own ministry, teaching women to have faith and spreading the word of God. “I think what sets me apart from other women singers is that I really love what I do, it’s fun for me. As far as the [humourous]] characters [she portrays in her stage act], I studied theatre at York University. Sometimes with our stressful lives, we just need a laugh. I think comedy is a real icebreaker.”

Women should avoid HRT despite new study, says York sociologist

In a story about renewed debate over the safety of hormone replacement therapy for symptoms of menopause in The Hamilton Spectator May 10, Wendy Sharpe, 57, said, “at this point, the quality of my life is paramount. For me to go off hormone replacement because of a slight chance it might be a health risk is not an option. “I’ll spin the roulette wheel.” This kind of talk infuriates Zelda Abramson, of the Toronto Women’s Health Network and a sociology professor in York’s Faculty of Arts. Abramson, in menopause herself, believes hormone replacement is dangerous. She suggests women avoid it altogether. “Having severe hot flashes are horrible. But you know what? They’ll pass,” she says, adding breast cancer on the other hand, might not. “No one has died from a hot flash,” she emphasizes.

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing the Supreme Court, writes Hutchison

A Conservative MP has caused something of a tempest in a teapot with his comments on the Supreme Court of Canada’s alleged penchant “to play the position of God,” wrote Allan Hutchison, associate dean at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, in The Globe and Mail May 10. However, the ensuing brouhaha has merely served to emphasize the fragile status of the court and the double standards that seem to govern criticism of its judicial members.

In a democracy, it is imperative that judicial performance is the subject of vigorous questioning. If Supreme Court judges are to have such enormous power in, and over, Canadian democracy, it is essential to debate robustly their decisions, their reasoning, and their very status. We should encourage, not disparage as “embarrassing” those who have the guts to check any possible usurpations of power. We need not agree with their particular criticisms, but we should not put the courts beyond the reach of debate or questioning.

Of course, this does not imply that mean-spirited or ad hominem assaults are warranted. Mr. Vellacott might well have crossed the line in falsely attributing particular views to the Chief Justice. But it is surely in the very best spirit and traditions of democracy to chastise leaders who might be becoming intoxicated by their own authority, importance and wisdom. Supreme Court judgedom is not next to godliness.

Judges are not delicate flowers who will wilt or snap in the face of critical gusts from politicians or whoever. Indeed, judges (or their political defenders) seem to want it both ways – to speak out, as judges increasingly do, on matters of controversy, but to be free of inconvenient criticism. This is a perverse bargain especially when it is remembered that judges have the most secure tenure in all government – they can preside until 75 and can only be removed by a vote of both the Senate and Commons.

Judges write long judgments that fill library shelves and the Chief Justice makes frequent public speeches. We can at least allow the citizenry to comment on them without fear of reprimand. After all, a privileged monologue of power, albeit phrased in the official accent of law, is anathema to democracy that ought to be more about a popular dialogue of engagement. If elected officials cannot comment on judges, then who can?

So rave on, Mr. Vellacott, rave on. Do not be quieted by the politically correct Prime Minister or Opposition Leader. They are the ones who ought to be embarrassed. Chief Justice McLachlin and her colleagues neither need nor deserve any silent subservience from Canadians. The price of relevance is the cost of complaint. The stifling of criticism signals the onset of democracy’s debilitating illness.

On air

  • Accident prevention specialist Alison Macpherson, professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Sciences, spoke about body checking in minor hockey on CBC Radio (Charlottetown) May 9. Macpherson also spoke about bicycle safety helmets on Toronto’s CFTO-TV and CTV NewsNet May 9.
  • Film historian and media critic Professor Seth Feldman, director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York, spoke about his personal fears – other people or his pet dying – on CBC Radio’s “Sounds Like Canada” May 9.
  • Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said he would push ahead with the Spadina Subway extension through York University, with or without the help of the federal government, on CBC-TV’s “Here and Now” May 9.