Canada's commitment slipping, UN rights aide says

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OTTAWA, Oct 22 (Reuters) Canada's commitment to human rights is slipping and the country must work hard to regain the position it once held as an international honest broker, a top United Nations official said today.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, who is Canadian, said she was particularly unhappy that Canada had last month voted against a nonbinding UN declaration of rights for indigenous peoples.

Arbour's comments were aimed at the minority Conservative government, which took power in February 2006 and has shown less interest in multilateral diplomacy than its Liberal predecessor.

Arbour said Canada had historically been perceived as an unbiased nation whose judgment was widely sought and which did not serve narrow interests.

''I am very worried that this very romantic view that we have of ourselves is not being sufficiently nourished and preserved to allow us to continue to occupy a place much larger than the one that our single voice among 192 member states of the United Nations would otherwise allow for,'' she said.

''I hope that we ... will collectively work very hard to reclaim that privileged space,'' she told an Ottawa conference on human rights.

Critics complain that the Conservatives are too close to Washington, where US President George W Bush's record on human rights is regularly attacked.

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, who was in the audience, declined to comment when asked by reporters for his reaction. Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier would not be available for comment, a spokesman said.

Arbour is a left-leaning former supreme court judge who was appointed to that job by the Liberals. She took up her current position in 2004.

She said she had to ''register my profound disappointment that Canada did not see fit to support the declaration'' on indigenous rights. Ottawa said the document clashed with Canadian laws.

Arbour later told reporters she was surprised by the Canadian vote and questioned whether Ottawa was still able to portray itself as an honest broker.

''I think there is a sense that Canada is moving away from its total commitment to multilateralism and is now I think advancing other forms of either national or regional alignment,'' she said.

''Canadians still have an image of themselves that is now pretty dated, that is not reflective of the contemporary position and role Canada can and should play in my view internationally.'' Reuters AK VP0043

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