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David MatasBy MYRON LOVE
David Matas has devoted his life to the defense of human rights worldwide. For his efforts, he has received numerous honours, including: the Governor-General’s Confederation Medal, appointment to the Order of Canada, the 2009 Human Rights Award from the German-based International Society for Human Rights, and a nomination for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.


On Thursday, June 8, the 73-year-old Winnipegger was recognized yet again – with the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Award, which was presented to Matas (and business leader Art DeFehr) by the Winnipeg-based Mahatma Gandhi Centre of Canada at a gala dinner at Canad Inns Polo Park.
“The awards are presented to those who foster Gandhi’s teachings of non-violence, truth and tolerance of diversity,” according to a news release which was issued prior to the event by the Mahatma Gandhi Centre of Canada (which was founded in 2010).
“I particularly appreciate that this award is being presented locally because the people in Winnipeg are the people who know me best,” Matas said of the award.
While Matas is best known in recent years for his championing of the cause of the Falun Gong movement in China (working together with former Member of Parliament David Kilgour), he has also served as a member of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, the Task Force on Immigration Practices & Procedures, the Canadian delegation to the United Nations Conference on an International Criminal Court 1998, the Canadian Delegation to the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, and from 1997 until 2003, the Director of the International Centre for Human Rights & Democratic Development. He was active in the campaigns against apartheid in South Africa and human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union. He is also a leading defender of Israel.
In his remarks on accepting the Mahatma Gandhi award, he spoke of Gandhi’s emphasis on non-violence, truth and tolerance and how Gandhi’s teachings can be applied in contexts distinct from the tolerant British Raj in the 1940s.
“Gandhi believed in arousing the world,” Matas said. “Yet, as George Orwell has pointed out in his essay ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, that is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible to appeal to outside opinion or bring a mass movement into being.”
 
Matas’ own human rights efforts, he noted, are directed against governments far more violent than the government of the British Raj was at the time. “In China or Iran or Eritrea, countries where there are grave human rights violations which I have opposed, there is no free press or right of assembly. Mass demonstrations are met with mass repression.
“When we are dealing with a repressive regime which murders its opponents and imposes censorship, when we are confronting a terrorist threat, when we are dealing with collapsed states, I would not say that nonviolence, the spirit of truth and tolerance of diversity have no place. But mobilising these values in these contexts requires different strategies from the one Gandhi used.”
Such situations, he observed, require an international approach. “Against the worst violators,” he said, “in the face of the most disastrous situations, effective stands for principle cannot systematically come from inside. They must come from outside, from places where people can stand up for human rights in safety.
“It is we outside of China or Iran or Eritrea who must promote the values of Mahatma Gandhi in those countries, because people in those countries run grave risks doing that themselves. That is one reason I have been active in combating the mass killing in China of prisoners of conscience for their organs for transplants, primarily Falun Gong, but also including Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Moslems and house Christians. Falun Gong is a set of exercises with a spiritual foundation, a Chinese equivalent of yoga. Today, anyone inside China, even non-Falun Gong, who protests the victimization of Falun Gong will become a human rights victim himself.”
 
A second strategic difference which arises from different contexts, he continued, is the need for co-ordination. “Non-violent responses and the use of force can sometimes work in tandem,” he pointed out. “The Allies, in response to attempts to stop the Holocaust while it was happening, took the position that the best way to do that was to win the war against Nazi Germany as quickly as possible. Their efforts to stop the Holocaust were military in nature, directed almost entirely at military targets.
“I believe that they could have done a lot more of a non-military nature against the Holocaust. The Allies could have provided a haven to Jewish refugees. They could have actively combated antisemitism. They could have recognized the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in Israel before and during the war, rather than only after the war. They could have, before and during the war, established mechanisms to bring the perpetrators of Nazi mass murders to justice, rather than waiting until the war was over. The public everywhere outside of Nazi control could have done more through demonstrations and public protest to arouse the world against the Holocaust while it was happening.
 “These measures would have done more to mitigate the Holocaust, if taken together with the military effort, than the military effort itself alone did. By restricting themselves to a military effort, the Allied forces and their populations made the Holocaust worse than it need have been.”
 
On the subject of terrorism, Matas argued that security measures are necessary to combat terrorism. “We cannot rely on peaceful advocacy alone,” he pointed out. “Yet, we tie our hands in the effort against terrorism if we rely only on security measures. Inciters distort religion and human rights itself to justify terrorism. Unless, through advocacy and activism, by standing against racism and religious intolerance, we combat their distortions, we present the inciters with an open field in which to wage their ideological combat.”
Using Israel as an example, he pointed to Israel’s long and tragic history as the target of terrorism and the energetic security measures that the country has introduced. “However, security measure in themselves are not enough to defend against anti-Zionist terrorism,” he said. “Anti-Zionists take a two pronged approach to denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination - armed attacks and delegitimization. A comprehensive response means countering both. There need to be not just security measures, but also opposition to the glorification of terrorists and the huge financial rewards given to terrorists and their families. Beyond that, there must be active efforts to counter the BDS - the boycotts, divestment, sanction - movement, the misleading attempts to paint Israel as an apartheid state, and all the other propaganda aimed at the destruction of the Jewish state.”
He singled out the advent of the Internet in making incitement to hatred more pervasive. “The effort to combat incitement is not just an effort of mobilization,” he said. “It is also an effort of communication, combating stereotypes, bringing truth to power - the power of public opinion. As well, sometimes the effort requires legal means, the force of law.
“When human rights are violated, humanity everywhere must stand against their violation. Minority victims must not be left to the tender mercies of a hostile majority.
 In conclusion, I would say this: The values of Gandhi will always be valid. The challenge we face is to make them fresh. To do that, we must adapt them to the realities we face today.”