Human Rights and Inhuman Wrongs: Glimpses From a Human Rights Conference.

By Tooker Gomberg, Edmonton, Alberta.

Organizers try, but fail, to bar Tooker from a Human Rights Conference.

For a few days last week in Edmonton, human rights were all the rage. Hymns to the glory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights rang from downtown conference rooms. The media craved and celebrated Bishop Tutu’s warmth and serenity.

Yet below the surface, all was not rosy. Contradictions abounded.

Most of the events took place at the Sheraton Hotel, local branch of the ITT Sheraton chain. Remember ITT? They played a key role, along with the CIA, in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Salvadore Allende in Chile. ITT preferred Pinochet, and they got him.

Delegates to the conference were given cotton bags made in China, notorious for its human rights abuses.

In the corridors, a few leaflets about human and environmental rights were being handed out – until the organizers got tough. They warned: keep at it and you’ll be kicked out. Alan Blanes, one of the leafletters, got to within a hair’s breadth of getting the boot. “The conference was supposed to be celebrating freedom of expression. Stopping us from distributing leaflets is sickeningly ironic – it is beyond the pale.”

The organizers were also annoyed with Dr. Kevin Sisk, Outer Head of the Edmonton Grove of the Church Of The Reformed Druids. He valiantly tried to ensure that his church members be accorded the right to use cannabis as a sacred herb, but didn’t get far…

Human rights activist Wei Jingsheng from China put it best in the title of his book: The Courage To Stand Alone. Human rights don’t come easy: you have to stand up for them, and you have to struggle. Without struggle, arbitrary power prevails.

Ken Nelson had his rights stolen by the Alberta Government when he and many others were forcibly sterilized. Ralph Klein had the opportunity to address the conference, yet Ken was barred entry because he didn’t have a ticket. That’s the way it was: for $300, you were welcome to attend. Midge Cuthill, of Poverty In Action, bemoaned the fact that the poor couldn’t attend the conference. Eventually, Ken and his wife were let in – after they created a scene.

There was another scene on the street. A dozen farmers and environmental activists protested the poisoning of Alberta by gas flaring. Reverend Wiebo Ludwig was there saying that the words being exchanged upstairs didn’t matter. What good were words to those being poisoned, he asked? Those at the rally maintained that the Alberta government was in collusion with the oil and gas industry, and had no interest in protecting farmers and ranchers from toxic pollution. The rally called on the international community to help defend their human rights. But those inside couldn’t hear.

My own struggle came when my press credentials, readily-accepted at the United Nations in New York, and at the Kyoto Summit in Japan, were rejected with the thin excuse that there was no room. I offered to hand over my seat to anyone who needed it. I would stand (alone?) if need be. No.

But I had a crucial question to ask. I wanted to expose and challenge one of the great eco-criminals of our time, one of the invited conference speakers.

With a palmed media pass, I gained entry to hear Eric Newell, CEO of Syncrude. There he was – the top banana of one of the most blatant, gigantic polluters in the country speaking on the topic of “Human Rights and the Environment”. I threw a verbal pie at him, criticising him and the proposed $25 billion expansion of the tar sands projects as massively destructive of our global ecosystem. I predicted that he would be tried one day for crimes against humanity and the earth. He ducked and blathered on about what a good corporate citizen Syncrude was.

The human rights celebration, titled “A Blueprint for Peace, Justice, and Freedom”, was fatally flawed. It didn’t welcome the poor and downtrodden, and it neglected to foster action. No blueprint was ever developed, nor was one even talked about.

There is an Ethiopian Proverb: When spiders unite, they can tie down a lion. Too bad there was nowhere for the spiders to gather.