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Stephen Lewis speaks on the erosion of human rights

March 2, 2017 — 

When St. John’s College invited former diplomat Stephen Lewis to speak about whether human rights are eroding in the 21st century, Donald Trump was not yet U.S. president.

Five weeks into the new U.S. administration, Lewis’s answer to the human rights question was clear. “They sure as the devil are (eroding).”

And his answer was not so diplomatic. “We have a moron in the White House,” he told about 200 students, professors and others Feb. 28 at the college’s 33rd annual Marjorie Ward lecture. 

Stephen Lewis photo by Alexis McDonald.

Stephen Lewis photo by Alexis McDonald.

Rarely consulting his speaking notes, Lewis listed the ways he believes human rights around the globe are at stake and why Canada should not just ride it out.

  • Trump’s executive order barring some immigrants and refugees has already affected Canada, with frightened people starting to flood across the border from the U.S.
  • Women’s reproductive rights around the world are under siege under a “global gag rule” that cuts U.S. government funding for foreign organizations with any connection to abortion, Lewis said. Canada and other countries have stepped up to help fill the funding gap but that could redirect money from other international priorities.
  • Stripping funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency affects the rights of the planet, Lewis argues. Famine induced by climate change involves a profound erosion of human rights, he explained.
  • A proposed massive increase in military spending combined with a mentally unstable president have brought the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight (nuclear catastrophe) than at any time since the 1950s, Lewis said.
  • Cuts to foreign aid will likely cause dangerous setbacks in controlling tuberculosis and HIV, and in boosting childhood immunization rates. Lewis, who has devoted much of his life to combatting AIDS, called the high prevalence of HIV in some smaller African countries the result of “indifference verging on crimes against humanity.”
  • Hate crimes appear to be on the rise in the wake of Trump’s racist rhetoric.
  • Lewis worries about who will protect lives in South Sudan or Myanmar or half a dozen other world hotspots if the U.S. cuts United Nations funding for peacekeeping and other programs. The day before his talk, new UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that “we are increasingly seeing the perverse phenomenon of populism and extremism feeding off each other in a frenzy of growing racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred and other forms of intolerance.” 

“Canada has to find the courage to stand up,” and tell Trump he is wrong, Lewis said, even if we suffer the consequences in trade talks with the U.S. If we don’t assert Canadian values, “we’re going to regret it.” 

The former NDP politician chastised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not speaking out strongly enough about these human rights abuses. And he warned that Canada is not immune to dangerous politics, suggesting the federal Conservative leadership race includes those who believe Canada has “too much freedom and democracy.”

Lewis recommended that audience members write their politicians and join established organizations working for human rights or defending science.

“I think we’ll see human rights more and more entrenched as the benchmark against which everything is measured,” Lewis concluded.

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