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UN Human Rights Observers for 2010?

If the Impact on Communities Coalition and the BC Civil Liberties Association have their way, a team of human rights observers from the United Nations will be on hand next year to monitor VANOC’s behaviour during the 2010 Games.

The IOCC and the BCCLA recently filed a complaint with the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (UNOHCHR), expressing concern that the 2010 Olympics could negatively impact people’s basic human rights and requesting that the UNOHCHR monitor VANOC’s delivery of the Games.

VANOC has said it would welcome the oversight, but many Vancouverites are less enthusiastic about the possibility.

“VANOC is in a position now where it can’t really say ‘no’ without people getting all wound up and pointing to that as proof that they plan on violating human rights during the Olympics,” said Will, a 33-year-old assistant manager at a downtown coffee shop. “VANOC may say ‘bring it on’ but I’d be surprised if they really want to see it happen.”

Although the clean cut coffee aficionado is sympathetic to the civil liberties concerns that some anti-Olympic groups have expressed about the Games, Will doesn’t think UN human rights observers have a place in Vancouver’s Olympic festivities.

“I’d be ashamed if we wind up with UN observers in town next year,” he said, frowning. “There are people all around the world being persecuted, tortured and killed by their own governments for who they are, their religious or political beliefs and whatnot, meanwhile we want the UN to send people to make sure anti-Olympic protestors get to wave their signs where they want, when they want? That doesn’t sit right.”

Many Vancouverites seem reluctant to get the UN involved in the city’s Olympic festivities, but some, like 49-year-old office worker Ann Marie, admit that having a few UN human rights observers on hand might not be a bad idea.

“As a Canadian, I’d be embarrassed if it actually came to that,” she explained. “We have laws protecting human rights, and the world knows us as a defender of human rights. Having the UN looking over our shoulder during the Olympics would undermine our reputation. It would be like having the UN say we can’t be trusted.”

But, Ann Marie added, “If that’s what it takes to make the Olympics run smoothly, then we should welcome anyone that’s sent to make sure everyone’s playing by the rules.” She explained her reasoning while swiping her breeze tussled blonde hair out of her eyes. “If there are neutral groups around to call ‘foul’ on VANOC and Olympic protestors, maybe the two sides will be able to peacefully co-exist next year.”

It may be a minority opinion, but it is possible to find some Vancouverites in favour of having UN human rights observers monitoring the situation in 2010.

John, a 42-year-old office worker hopes that the UNOHCHR will send a team of human rights observers in advance of the Games so that they can monitor the situation before and after the city’s temporary Olympic by-laws come into effect.

“I hope they get people out here soon,” he said. As he shrugged his messenger bag further up his shoulder, John explained, “I think some of the by-laws council passed a few weeks ago go way too far, and some of them will be in effect come January 1st. It’s not enough to have an observer team here a week before the opening ceremonies – the Olympics will begin impacting people’s rights much sooner than that.”

Although he can see how the presence of UN human rights observers might be a blow to Canada’s international reputation, John thinks it might also offer all Canadians a valuable reality check.

“Just having them here won’t do any harm,” he said calmly. “But if they point to by-laws inhibiting free expression that have been passed by elected officials, or the shameful way our governments are ignoring the Downtown Eastside and they criticize us for it… Well maybe we didn’t really deserve our human rights reputation in the first place.”

If Canada does face criticism from UN human rights observers, it could impact more than just the country’s reputation.

Earlier this year, Canada wrapped up a three-year term on the UN’s 47-member Human Rights Council. Canada may seek re-election to the council in the future, but to do so, it must continue to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” A slap on the wrist from UNOHCHR could hurt Canada’s chances of being elected to future councils.

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