Amnesty International says Jason Kenney's 'fight back' strategy violates human rights

Amnesty International Canada says the Alberta government’s plan to fight people who criticize the oil and gas industry exposes them to threats, intimidation and violates their human rights.

Alberta premier calls allegations in letter 'beyond ridiculous'

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney addressed the Oil Sands Trade Show and Conference in Fort McMurray on Tuesday. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC )

Amnesty International Canada says critics of Alberta's oil and gas industry face threats, intimidation and violations of their human rights under Premier Jason Kenney's plan to expose alleged foreign funding of Canadian environmental groups.

In an open letter to Kenney, Secretary General Alex Neve on Tuesday urged the United Conservative government to end plans for both the public inquiry into the funding issue and the energy "war room."

"Amnesty International is deeply concerned that these initiatives undermine and violate a range of Alberta's human rights obligations, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international law, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, the rights of Indigenous peoples and gender equality," Neve wrote.

"Amnesty International is also gravely concerned that these initiatives, and the rhetoric surrounding them, feeds into a worsening climate of hostility toward human rights defenders – particularly Indigenous, women, and environmental human rights defenders – exposing them to intimidation and threats, including threats of violence."

On Tuesday, Kenney told CBC News prior to his speech in Fort McMurray that the allegations in the letter were "beyond ridiculous" and said he would "absolutely not" abandon the two initiatives, which were a key part of his party's election platform. 

Kenney said he started an Amnesty International club in high school "when it used to actually fight for releasing prisoners of conscience." 

"Now it's fighting to protect foreign-funded billionaires from transparency when they're funding a campaign to landlock Canadian energy," Kenney said. "That makes absolutely no sense."

He said Amnesty International should be more concerned about the world's use of oil from countries with poor human rights records like Saudi Arabia and Russia instead of Canada. 

Neve argued Kenney's own government needs to refrain from making accusations that could lead to threats and violence against people who criticize the oil and gas industry.

He urged Kenney to ensure that no public funding leads to "harassment, surveillance or criminalization of human rights defenders who opposed or criticize [the government's] energy agenda and its implications for the rights of Indigenous peoples and the global climate crisis." 

"Alberta should be at the forefront of denouncing such actions by other governments, not following their lead," Neve wrote. 

'Report an Albertan'

In an interview with CBC News, Neve said his organization is concerned about the language aimed at people who advocate for human rights. Calling them "liars" or "enemies" could lead to threats and violence, particularly against Indigenous women, he said.

Neve responded to an example given by Kenney in his speech in Fort McMurray on Tuesday where the premier joked about the imprisonment of Greenpeace activists in Russia. 

"Their crew was arrested and thrown in a Siberian jail for six months and funnily enough, they've never been back," Kenney said to scattered nervous laughter from the crowd. "I'm not recommending that for Canada but it's instructive."

Neve said that kind of rhetoric creates the idea that it's fine for governments to jail human rights and environmental activists.

"I think that's precisely an example of the kind of thing we're very concerned about," Neve said.

As for Kenney's contention Amnesty International should focus its attention on Saudi Arabia and Russia, Neve said they are "absolutely" on top of the situation.

Neve's letter comes one day after the Alberta government launched an online submissions page to support the public inquiry led by Commissioner Steve Allan.

The announcement provoked immediate backlash online.

While the government said the site allows Albertans to send Allan relevant information for his investigation, critics said it amounted to a "snitch line" for people to report their neighbours for allegedly "un-Albertan" activities. 

The #ReportAnAlbertan hashtag trended on Twitter Monday evening.

The first part of Allan's investigation is described as a fact-finding mission with trips to British Columbia and Washington, D.C.  He will interview people and conduct research. He can hold public hearings if he chooses. 

Allan has the power to compel witnesses to testify and provide documents, but only within the province of Alberta. 

His final report is due on July 2, 2020.

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With files from Jamie Malbeuf