Ottawa silent as Afghanistan's democracy stifled

Malalai Joya has a low tolerance for high-level corruption among public figures, elected and appointed, and she's never been shy about saying so.

Viewed by some as courageous, others as foolhardy, in my view her outspoken criticism cannot constitute legitimate grounds for permanent expulsion, without due process and with no appeal procedure from Afghanistan's Parliament to which she was democratically elected by her people. Neither is it acceptable for Canada's Prime Minister, four Cabinet Ministers, and one Parliamentary Secretary to refuse to comment, let alone express concerns to the Karzai government. Disgracefully, that is precisely what has happened.

In mid-April, an all-party delegation of nine Canadian MPs and Senators attended the 118th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in South Africa. The IPU is, in effect, a world congress of Parliamentarians.

On its final day, the IPU Assembly of 1700 delegates from 135 countries adopted, without a single dissenting voice, the Governing Council's Report of the Human Rights of Parliamentarians Committee, expressing its deep concern "that [Afghanistan parliamentarian, Ms. Malalai] Joya was suspended on account of outspoken remarks," and "is also concerned at the discrepancy that while the remarks made by Ms. Joya have led to a serious punishment, her treatment by some fellow parliamentarians that she has publicly denounced has reportedly not drawn any response from Parliament."

Over the past year, the Harper government has deliberately avoided several opportunities to address Malalai Joya's mistreatment. By chance, Prime Minister Harper was in Afghanistan on the day of her expulsion [link], yet raised no objection to the lack of fair parliamentary process. At the time, I wrote the Prime Minister, urging him to express concern about Ms. Joya's arbitrary, undemocratic treatment. The Foreign Affairs Minister's only response was to invoke the "independence of Afghan lawmakers" as an excuse for Canada washing its hands of any responsibility.

The silence of other Conservative Ministers has been equally impotent and appalling. On June 6, 2007 during a joint meeting of the Defence and Foreign Affairs committees, the Ministers of Public Safety, Foreign Affairs, Defence, International Cooperation, and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs ignored pleas for Canada to register concerns about the trampling of Ms. Joya's parliamentary rights and privileges and the rights of those in her province who voted for her to represent them.

On May 21, 2007, the Afghanistan House of the People suspended the parliamentary mandate of Malalai Joya for her entire term of office. They did so, allegedly, on the basis of a television interview in which she strongly criticized former warlords and others currently serving in the Afghan parliament charged with high-level corruption.

Ms. Joya has paid a heavy price for her outspoken remarks. According to the IPU Human Rights of Parliamentarians committee report of April 13, 2008, she has survived four assassination attempts and, due to threats made against her, never spends two nights in the same place. Despite these dangers, the Afghan authorities have apparently removed Ms. Joya's security detail. According to the IPU Committee's investigation, "members of parliament have regularly criticized one another, but no one else had been suspended on such grounds, even when Ms. Joya was called a 'prostitute' or 'whore' by fellow parliamentarians."

The expulsion of Ms. Joya silences an elected representative of the Afghan people. As the IPU statement underscores, her expulsion occurred without a time limit being set for the suspension. Parliament has ignored its own old and new Standing Orders in the application of its disciplinary action.

The deepening silence of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers is a severe indictment of the Conservatives' unbalanced engagement in Afghanistan. Their weak commitment to Afghanistan's parliamentary rules, and to the freedom of expression of its elected representatives, stands in stark contrast to the Canadian government's ongoing prosecution of a counter-insurgency campaign in Kandahar, fought in the name of democracy, human rights, rooting out corruption and the safeguarding of women.

On April 30 in the House of Commons and in a letter of May 5 to Harper and his Ministers, I urged the government to publicly endorse the report of the Governing Council of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and appeal to the Afghan authorities to call for fair treatment for Malalai Joya, elected MP for Farah province.

In a democratic society, even the most outspoken deserve to have their democratic rights and parliamentary privileges safeguarded.

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