Freedom of Expression and the Canada/Israel Relationship

By Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada’s Secretary General. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexNeve Amnesty

Amnesty International has reviewed the Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel regarding Public Diplomacy Cooperation ( MOU) which was concluded between the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two countries on 18 January, 2015.

Amnesty International is concerned that various provisions in the MOU may lead to infringements of the right to freedom of expression, which is enshrined in both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international human rights treaties binding on Canada. The MOU is grounded in a shared concern about “efforts to single out the State of Israel for criticism”, noting in particular “calls for a boycott of the State of Israel, for the divestment of investments, and for sanctions to be imposed on Israel.”  The MOU refers to “selective targeting of Israel” as being the “new face of anti-Semitism.”  The MOU commits Canada and Israel to “work together to oppose efforts to single out or isolate the State of Israel.”  In that regard there is particular reference to:

i. Developing a coordinated, public diplomacy initiative both bilaterally and in international and multilateral fora to oppose boycotts of Israel, its institutions and its people within three to six months;

ii. Publically expressing their opposition to those who would call into question the State of Israel’s very right to exist or to defend itself, by itself;

iii. Engaging in annual consultations to identify opportunities to advocate in favour of the State of Israel’s full participation in the global economy.

Amnesty International reminds both the Canadian and Israeli governments of their obligation not only to refrain from violating the right to freedom of expression but their full responsibility actively to uphold and safeguard that essential human right.  Language in the MOU that talks of opposing criticism of Israel, opposing boycotts and in particular expressing to “opposition to those” who would call Israel’s existence or right of self-defence into question raises very real concerns about respect for freedom of expression.

When it comes to a government’s obligations with respect to freedom expression there is a very important difference between “opposing criticism” and “responding to criticism”.  Unless criticism involves criminal acts that are, when narrowly and proportionately described, recognized to be legitimate exceptions to freedom of expression, such as hate speech provisions in the Criminal Code, governments are barred from curtailing or prohibiting expression.  In fact they should ensure that the space and opportunity for offering such criticism, particularly when it is contrary to the government’s views and policies, is fully protected.

It is of course entirely legitimate for a government to respond to the substance of any such criticism by expressing a contrary view and by correcting or clarifying misinformation or mistakes, and to do so vigorously and unapologetically.  It is a violation of international human rights law to oppose the offering of the criticism itself.

Amnesty International is not aware whether the diplomacy initiative referred to above has yet been developed.  It is not clear, therefore, what measures either government might have taken or intend to take pursuant to this MOU.

In the preamble to the MOU the Canadian and Israeli governments reaffirm their “dedication to the shared values of freedom of expression and assembly, democracy and the rule of law.”  Amnesty International urges that no steps be taken further to this MOU or otherwise that would directly or indirectly undermine or violate those fundamental values.