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Open Letter to Party Leaders on Outcome of the UN Human Rights Committee Review of Canada

    October 02, 2015

    The Right Honourable Stephen Harper;
    Leader of the Opposition, Thomas Mulcair;
    Justin Trudeau;
    Elizabeth May; and
    Gilles Duceppe

    Dear Prime Minister Harper, Mr. Mulclair, Mr. Trudeau, Ms. May, and Mr. Duceppe:

    We are writing to you regarding Canada’s human rights record in light of the July 2015 release of the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s Concluding Observations on the country’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This was the first time the Committee has examined Canada’s record in a decade. As in other reviews of Canada by UN bodies, including the Human Rights Council, these Concluding Observations raise numerous serious concerns about critical violations of human rights in this country.

    Representatives of our organizations attended the Committee’s review. We made written submissions to the Committee in advance of the review and engaged directly with Committee members. We are deeply troubled by the serious human rights issues this review has brought to light. We are equally convinced that there is considerable potential and opportunity to make meaningful progress.  For this reason, we are writing to highlight and seek commitments from you on behalf of your parties with respect to three areas of particular concern:

    (1) the lack of effective accountability mechanisms for implementing international human rights obligations;

    (2) the need for urgent action on three priority issues about which the Committee asked Canada to report within one year; and

    (3) federal laws and activities that have curtailed the space for dissent, advocacy and defending human rights in this country.

    1.  Implementation of Treaty Body Recommendations

    We are concerned about the mounting gap between the commitments Canada has made on the world stage to protect human rights and the failure to live up to those promises at home. Our organizations attribute this gap in part to the fact that there is no transparent, effective and accountable means of ensuring that those commitments are implemented, an issue which the Committee noted with concern in its Concluding Observations.

    Government secrecy around human rights implementation must give way to openness and transparency. An appropriate inter-governmental institution or process with the authority and accountability to implement recommendations and respond to concerns has never existed in Canada.

    The last time a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers was held to discuss Canada's international human rights obligations was in 1988. It is time for this country’s leaders to engage constructively with Indigenous peoples and members of civil society to grapple with the serious shortcomings in Canada’s approach to international human rights and commit to a coordinated, accountable, and transparent system.

    2.  Action Required on Issues Canada Must Report on Within One Year

    The Committee has provided recommendations to Canada regarding a wide range of human rights concerns. Notably, the Committee had such disquiet with respect to the issues facing Indigenous women and girls, the protection of Indigenous land rights, and the treatment of immigrants and refugees that it gave the federal government a one-year deadline to report back on progress made to address its recommendations.

    In particular, the Committee called on Canada to take urgent measures to prevent violence against Indigenous women and girls, including through a national inquiry and other measures to address the root causes of violence and how police respond. It called for strong protection of Indigenous land and treaty rights, including upholding international standards requiring the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples on decisions having an impact on their rights. It also called on Canada to reform immigration detention practices, review the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to provide refugee claimants from “safe countries” with access to an appeal hearing, ensure all refugee claimants and irregular migrants have access to essential health services and fully comply with the principle of non-refoulement in cases involving a risk of torture.

    3. Reduced Space for Dissent from Civil Society Organizations

    As organizations and activists working to improve human rights protections in Canada, we note the alarm the Committee expressed with regard to federal laws and activities that dramatically curtail the space for dissent, advocacy and defending human rights in Canada. At stake are the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association; the very pillars of the human rights system. The Committee called on Canada to develop a well-structured dialogue with civil society to ensure that defending human rights in Canada is respected and supported. This includes an important recommendation that measures in the Income Tax Act limiting the ability of charitable groups to pursue advocacy be reformed.

    Our organizations are seeking commitments from your party to:

    • Convene a meeting of  federal, provincial and territorial ministers to review Canada’s approach to implementing its international human rights obligations and begin the development of a new system that is well-coordinated among governments, publicly transparent and politically accountable;

    • Ensure that prompt action is taken to address the three priority concerns identified by the Committee, so as to demonstrate real progress within the one-year deadline; and

    • Institute the “well-structured dialogue” with Indigenous peoples and civil society called for by the Committee in order to restore confidence in the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly in Canada.

    We look forward to hearing from you with a firm pledge to take up these three recommendations.  We would be happy to meet with you, or with other candidates or officials from your party, to discuss this further. We can be reached by contacting Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English branch, at aneve@amnesty.ca or by telephone at 613-744-7667 ext. 234.

    Sincerely,

    Alex Neve
    Secretary General
    Amnesty International Canada

    On behalf of:
    Aboriginal Title Alliance
    American Association of Jurists (Canadian Branch)
    Amnesty International Canada
    Canada Without Poverty
    Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action
    Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University
    Charter Committee on Poverty Issues
    Indigenous World Association
    International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto
    ILGA North America
    Social Rights Advocacy Centre