UNITED NATIONS - Former political prisoners, torture victims and human rights groups are asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper to help prevent a UN official with a "long and notorious record of supporting dictators" from becoming an advisor to the world body's new Human Rights Council.
Canada condemned Jean Ziegler's remarks last year when he compared Israelis to concentration camp guards, but the former Swiss politician has also made headlines defending countries frequently cited for human rights abuses, including Cuba, Libya and Sudan.
"Mr. Ziegler's appointment to ... the UN's human rights 'think-tank' ... would make a mockery of everything that the council is supposed to embody," says a letter calling on Mr. Harper to oppose his candidacy.
Canada is seeking a seat on the new body in May 9 elections.
The United States says it will stand aside for a year to see whether the council lives up to its billing as a "fresh start" in the UN's bid to combat human rights abuses around the world.
Washington has always opposed the creation of the council and wants a tougher human rights monitoring mechanism.
Mr. Ziegler would be one of 26 experts on a subcommission on the promotion and protection of human rights to be elected by the 47 member nations after their first meeting in June.
"Only Canada can show leadership on this issue," said Hillel Neuer, Canadian executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based monitoring group.
"With Ziegler's appointment, those of us urging the U.S. to join and make the best of the new council now stand to be undercut by the UN itself."
Mr. Ziegler has used his platform as UN rapporteur for the right to food to speak out over the years.
An assessment of his record accompanying the letter to Mr. Harper is signed by UN Watch and 14 other organizations, including human rights activists from Cuba, Libya and Vietnam, African and Asian development organizations, and two U.S. women's rights groups.
"During the first four years of his mandate, Jean Ziegler ... never spoke out for the hungry ... in 15 of 17 countries deemed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to have a man-made food emergency," said the statement.
"Jean Ziegler almost never criticizes any government other than the U.S. and Israel.... Hence, the Sudanese atrocities in Darfur for Ziegler are merely a 'cause for concern,' the role of the Khartoum regime in atrocities only alleged. By contrast, the United States is an 'imperialist dictatorship' responsible for all the world's misery, the U.S. is committing 'genocide' in Cuba and Israel commits 'state terror' and 'war crimes' with the U.S.'s blessing."
A spokesperson for Mr. Harper's office said officials were "taking a look" at the appeal.
The rights groups say they have learned Mr. Ziegler has the backing of Switzerland.
Last month, Peter Maurer, the Swiss ambassador to the UN, suggested U.S. opposition to the council blueprint may have been a disguised attempt to sabotage the UN's human rights work.
Yesterday, Canada, one of nine countries vying for seven council seats reserved for Western countries, issued its manifesto to the other 190 General Assembly members.
Among its pledges is one to "re-extend its open invitation" to UN investigators to visit Canada to make sure human rights are being respected -- considered important as a way of convincing countries where human rights are a serious concern to open their doors too.