Canadian Government’s policy agenda falls short on human rights, says Amnesty International Canada in new report
As Canada heads towards an election sometime before October 2015, Amnesty International Canada’s annual human rights agenda, Jobs, Security … and Human Rights For All, reveals serious failings in federal government laws and policies. In his first address to the UN General Assembly in four years Prime Minister Harper spoke of a world “where human rights and justice are preserved”. Amnesty International is concerned that government action far too often fails to match those words.
“Canada’s failure to ground economic development in respect for Indigenous peoples’ rights, hesitancy to ratify treaties that enhance law and order, and inconsistency in which countries attract Canada’s criticism are among the issues outlined in the new agenda,” says Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English Branch. “Economic growth, the quest for law and order and the promotion of freedom and democracy abroad must have respect for human rights at their core.”
According to the federal economic action plan, an estimated 600 major resource development projects are expected to get underway across the country over the next decade. Although these projects can be expected to impact the traditional territories of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, the government has not established adequate formal mechanisms to ensure that Indigenous peoples are full partners in such decisions and that their rights are appropriately protected. The government ignores requirements under Canadian and international law that large-scale resource development projects proceed only with the consent of those Indigenous peoples whose rights would be significantly affected.
Canadian corporations involved in the extractive industries abroad have not been held to account for human rights violations. An Extractive Sector Ombudsperson to deal with these issues is needed. And people who have been seriously harmed by the international operations of Canadian companies must be given access to Canadian courts to obtain redress. And free trade agreements must be subject to rigorous, independent human rights impact assessments.
“Families and communities have been a focus for the Canadian government but there are many who still suffer from discrimination and marginalization”, says Béatrice Vaugrante, Director General of the francophone branch of Amnesty International Canada. “Violence against Indigenous women, discrimination in services for First Nations communities and protection of economic, social and cultural rights all need the government’s attention.”
The agenda calls for an action plan and public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, who face a homicide rate more than four times higher than all other women. The call for an inquiry has been made by Indigenous women’s organizations, all the provinces, the federal opposition parties, and national and international groups. Attacks against Indigenous women and girls are not simply isolated crimes as the Prime Minster has recently suggested, but are a consequence of entrenched patterns of discrimination and marginalization that constitute nothing less than a national human rights crisis. A public inquiry leading to a comprehensive and coordinated national action plan is essential.
There continue to be wide disparities in the funding of essential services on First Nations reserves. A current human rights complaint highlights the fact that the federal government provides significantly less money per child for child protection services in First Nations communities than the provincial governments provide for all other children. This is discrimination. The funding of education, health and clean water on reserves often falls below that provided in other Canadian communities, despite an obligation to ensure comparability.
The government’s law and order agenda has been tough but selective. On the critical issue of torture they have not addressed the issue of Canada’s own complicity. Cases such as Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin, where a judicial inquiry determined that Canadian officials were complicit, have not been resolved. What is needed, says the agenda, is an impartial and independent process for redress for these individuals where Canadian officials have contributed to torture or other human rights abroad.
Individuals must also be able to pursue civil lawsuits in Canadian courts for damages from torture or other grave human rights violations in foreign countries through an amendment to the State Immunity Act that now prevents this action.
The prevention of international crimes by restricting the global arms flow of arms must also be on the government’s human rights agenda. In April 2013 the international community adopted an Arms Trade Treaty that has now been ratified by 54 countries and goes into effect on 24 December 2014. But Canada, although voting for the treaty, has not signed or ratified it. The agenda calls on the government to do so by April 2015.
And the government has opposed law reform that is supported by Canadian police forces. Government Senators must be pushed to adopt Bill C-279 in its present form. The Bill would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to better protect the rights of transgender individuals.
While Canada has often promoted freedom, democracy and human rights abroad the agenda highlights glaring inconsistencies that undercut a commitment to universal human rights. The refusal to speak out about the rights of Palestinians if it involves criticism of the Israeli government is evident as is the failure to criticize important trading partners and lower engagement with Africa.
Inconsistency is starkly evident is the way the government handles cases of Canadian citizens and permanent residents abroad facing unfair trials, arbitrary detention, torture and even the death penalty. Sometimes the response is conditioned by the country involved while at other times it is affected by the background of the person involved. Huseyin Celil in China, Bashir Makhtal in Ethiopia, Mohamed Fahmy and Khaled Al-Qazzaz in Egypt, Saeed Malekpour in Iran, Ronald Smith in the US, and Omar Khadr, who is now in jail in Canada after a decade in Guantánamo Bay, are some of the cases.
Foreign policy and consular relations on human rights cases must be grounded in the principle of universal, not particular application, notes the agenda.
The universal nature of human rights must also apply to the way Canada ratifies international treaties. Canada has failed to ratify many including the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture that allows for the inspection of detention centres, a vital way to expose places where torture often takes place. And the government has not had a meeting with provincial and territorial ministers since 1988 to ensure meaningful implementation of international human rights treaties. Canada must ratify outstanding treaties and develop an effective and accountable approach to implementation.
At home in Canada, organizations defending human rights principles have faced systematic pressure, including targeted funding cuts and other measures. The situation has caught the attention of the UN Human Rights Committee, which has informed the government that they will be looking at this issue when reviewing Canada’s human rights record in 2015. To protect and uphold dissent and advocacy in Canada, the government must also work with Indigenous peoples’ organizations and civil society on a national plan to implement the UN Declaration on Human Right Defenders.
“The government has enhanced national security and made defending our borders a dominant issue,” notes Béatrice Vaugrante. “But without grounding security and border policies in firm respect for human rights they are eroding what they should be protecting.”
A key lesson of Maher Arar’s experience of unlawful imprisonment and torture in Syria over ten years ago is that national security review and oversight were inadequate. That must be remedied by adopting the national security review model proposed by the Arar Inquiry.
Canada’s recent approach to refugee protection has been one of restriction, exclusion and punishment. Mandatory detention, ‘safe’ countries of origin and cuts to health care should be revoked; and proposals allowing social assistance cuts for refugee claimants should be abandoned, says the agenda. And the government must respond to the worst refugee crisis in decades, with 3.8 million Syrians facing intolerable hardship and danger in neighboring countries. In response to a call from the UNHCR, Canada must make a commitment to resettle a minimum of 10,000 Syrian refugees to Canada through government sponsorship before the end of 2016.
Improving maternal and child health has been Canada’s signature foreign policy initiative. Prime Minister Harper has also championed ending early and forced child marriage around the world. These initiatives are important but will be undermined unless they are grounded in a strong human rights framework that includes protection of the full range of sexual and reproductive rights.
And there are still serious concerns about women’s equality in Canada. Canada’s global standing as a leader has declined. The agenda strongly endorses the call for a leaders’ debate during the 2015 federal election campaign focused on issues identified by women.
“With an election on the horizon, the human rights agenda is clear”, says Neve. “The road to economic success must be based on respect for rights of Indigenous peoples, upholding economic, social and cultural rights, welcoming refugees, and protecting the human rights of all.”
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Human Rights Agenda Jobs, Security … and Human Rights For All