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04/17/2018 12:29 EDT | Updated 04/17/2018 13:19 EDT

Silence On Gaza Exposes Canada's Hypocrisy On Human Rights

Our silence, a clear nod of deference to the U.S. and Israel, highlights the purely political nature of when we speak up and when we look the other way.

In January, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, issued the following statement in response to protests in Iran: "Canada is deeply troubled by the recent deaths and detentions of protesters in Iran. The Iranian people have the right to freely assembly and express themselves without facing violence or imprisonment."

In October 2017, Canada responded to protests in Venezuela by sanctioning 40 government officials. As a corresponding statement noted, "Canada will not stand by silently as the government of Venezuela robs its people of their fundamental democratic rights."

As of today, the Israel Defense Forces have killed 35 Palestinians since demonstrations began on March 30, and thousands more have been injured by live ammunition fired into the crowds. Of those wounded, 20 were women and 67 under the age of 18. At least nine have been journalists. Yet Canada has failed to issue any statement recognizing the rights of the Palestinian people to free assembly and expression, even as the death toll of unarmed Palestinians continues to rise.

How come, Mr. Prime Minister?

Suhaib Salem / Reuters
Relatives of Hamdan Abu Amshah, who was killed along Gaza's border with Israel, mourn during his funeral in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip on March 31, 2018.

The colour of protest

The protest in Gaza, known as the March of Return, has exposed Canadian hypocrisy on human rights. Our silence, a clear nod of deference to the United States and Israel, highlights the purely political nature of when we speak up and when we politely look the other way. For protesters in Russia, Venezuela, Iran, China and Egypt, sanctions are slapped down and fingers wagged. But protesters speaking out against our allies have no such luck — Canadian talk on rights and freedoms is quietly shelved for another, more appropriate regime.

Though Human Rights Watch found no evidence of any protester using firearms, Westerners defending Israeli actions as self-defence point to the protest's elements of violence: the stones thrown, the tires torched and Molotov cocktails tossed. This, they say, justifies the use of force.

But let's consider something. Back in June 2010, some 10,000 people gathered in Toronto to protest the G20 Summit. Some attendees used violent tactics, vandalizing local businesses, burning police cars, looting, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.

Unarmed civilians are not responsible for who controls their city

Despite the violence, and despite a crowd roughly the same size as that in Gaza, there was not a single death. There were dozens of injures and a controversial police crackdown, but not one person was killed.

At no point was live ammunition fired into crowds. At no point did the Canadian military station snipers on the roofs to kill civilians running away armed with nothing but a tire, nor civilians praying, and certainly not any members of the press.

If the G20 protests had resulted in civilian deaths by sniper fire, would our response be the same? Or have Palestinians been so conflated with terrorism, their identities purposely cast as indistinguishable from Hamas, that we have collectively dehumanized them? The lacklustre response to the Gaza protests exposes the racial lens through which we view the acceptability of a protest.

Potential involvement of Hamas is no excuse

The fact that Hamas controls Gaza, and was therefore involved in organizing the Great Return March, has been a common refrain used to excuse Israel's excessive use of force. Most notably, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said there are "no innocent people in the Gaza Strip" because "everyone is connected to Hamas."

But here's the thing: under international law, what group controls the territory has no impact on the fundamental obligation to distinguish civilians from combatants. Unarmed civilians are not responsible for who controls their city; this is a foundational principle of the laws of war. Even those who voted for Hamas (assuming these are free and fair elections, by the way) are not rendered fair game as a result.

Second, Israel alleges that several of those killed were not civilians, but Hamas militants. Lieberman told reporters that Yaser Murtaja, for example, who was shot and killed while carrying a video camera and wearing a vest clearly marked "PRESS," was connected to Hamas, but repeatedly failed to provide any evidence to support the claim. Lieberman's accusation has been strongly condemned by the International Federation of Journalists, a global body in possession of documented evidence that Murtaja was in fact detained and beaten by Hamas in 2015.

Yaser Murtaja on Facebook
Yaser Murtaja, the journalist who was killed by the Israel Defense Forces.

Even if some of those killed were members of Hamas, are we prepared to support extrajudicial executions by neither judge nor jury? Hamas or not, unless those killed posed an imminent threat at the time they were shot, it is still not a proportionate use of force. And from the video evidence circulating online, it would certainly appear that several of the people shot posed no active threat at all.

Democratic and human rights are Canadian values, aren't they?

Canada should defend the basic human rights of Palestinians as we have for protesters elsewhere. As columnist Neil Macdonald wrote for the CBC, supporting Palestinian human rights should not be considered a radical or controversial position.

Silence on abuses perpetrated by certain governments but not others denigrates whatever moral high ground or political leverage on human rights we have. It leaves gaping, highly politicized holes to be exploited the next time we righteously point the finger at other states for similar crackdowns. Our silence now will be held up as hypocritical tomorrow.

More from HuffPost Canada:

Naming and shaming is an essential part of the global system, political pressure a key enforcement mechanism of international law. Keeping our head in the sand on Gaza betrays an embarrassing lack of courage to confront Israel the same as we do other states, and erodes trust in Canadian commitments to basic human rights and international accountability.

The silence of the Canadian government is an outlier among our global allies, and a shameful one at that.