06/18/2012 09:27 EDT | Updated 08/18/2012 05:12 EDT

UN Calls Quebec's Bill 78 Alarming


The Charest Liberals and Harper Conservatives have formed a united front to condemn a United Nations agency for criticizing Quebec's controversial Bill 78 limiting student protests.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Monday she found the controversial Quebec law to be part of an alarming trend.

Pillay expressed her opinion of the Quebec law in a single paragraph of a long speech in Geneva, during which she lamented rights violations in places such as North Korea, Zimbabwe and South Sudan.

"Moves to restrict freedom of assembly in many parts of the world are alarming," she said. "In the context of student protests, I am disappointed by the new legislation passed in Quebec that restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly."

Quebec Premier Jean Charest called it rich that the criticism came from an agency based in Geneva, a city with much tougher protest laws.

"It's ironic ... that they're criticizing a law that requires eight hours notice before a protest and an itinerary, when in Geneva — where the United Nations office is — it's 30 days notice that they require," Charest told reporters at the global environmental conference in Rio de Janiero.

"So we're not as severe as the place that hosts the United Nations. We're more supple, and more permissive."

The Conservative government swiftly defended Quebec's right to pass its own laws in a democratic environment.

"Quebec is a very democratic place, subject to the rule of law," said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. "People can challenge the government's decisions in court, so I stand behind the government of Quebec.

"With what's going on in Syria, with what's going on in Iran and Belarus, the UN would be better to spend its time on there."

In her speech, Pillay also touched on many human rights hotspots around the world including Syria, Mali, Nepal, Mexico and Russia.

Canada's representative at the UN Human Rights Council, Elissa Goldberg, also struck back at Pillay's comments, calling them "misguided."

"She and her staff have failed to do proper due diligence on this matter — had they done so, they would have uncovered some basic facts that demonstrate the folly of equating Canada with other that she spoke of."

Opposition to UN speech

A UN watchdog group called UN watch issued a statement calling the reference to Quebec absurd.

It pointed out that Bill 78 was passed by a democratically elected government and that opponents have the opportunity to challenge it in court.

Student federations in Quebec have filed a legal motion to temporarily suspend the special law until July, when a court is expected to hear the groups' second legal challenge seeking to declare the law invalid.

Executive director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, told the CBC he understands that there are issues about Bill 78 but said it shouldn't be a matter of urgent United Nations attention.

"Let's keep some perspective," he said. "In Syria, there are people who demonstrate and get slaughtered. In Canada, legislation says you have to give police notice of the route you're taking."

The group also said there are far more restrictive countries that Pillay failed to mention, including Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China.

Student conflict

Bill 78, which was passed into law on May 18, was the Quebec government's legal response to a student crisis sparked three months ago over planned tuition increases.

Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier describes the special law as a tool to ensure students who want to study can safely go to class without being prevented by their schoolmates.

It suspended the winter semester for striking students and restricted protests, guiding their location, timing, and organization.

Authorities had to be given a precise itinerary and eight hours' notice for any protest involving 50 people or more, at the risk of heavy fines running into the thousands of dollars.

The Federation representing Quebec CEGEP students is calling for mediation to resolve the tuition conflict.

It issued a statement Monday morning saying that after four months, mediation is the only way to resolve the crisis. The statement says FECQ has already made two such requests to the Charest government, but they went unanswered.

Now it is making a public appeal and calling on the provincial Liberals to act within 48 hours.

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