Human Rights Agenda for Canada 2015
The world that Canada strives for is the world that the founders of the United Nations wanted from the beginning, as boldly articulated in their declaration of 1942: a world where life, liberty, independence and religious freedom are defended, where human rights and justice are preserved, and where all join in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world. In such a world, there can be prosperity for the impoverished, justice for the weak, and, for the desperate, that most precious of all things, hope.
- Prime Minister Stephen Harper, UN General Assembly, September 2014
In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly - his first in four years - Prime Minister Harper lays out a compelling vision of universal human rights protection which offers the prospect of prosperity, justice and hope. Amnesty International’s 2015 Human Rights Agenda for Canada outlines serious concerns that Canadian government action, at home and abroad, has often failed to live up to that vision; and lays out key recommendations for improvement.
This edition of the Human Rights Agenda is being published in the lead up to a federal election which will take place sometime before October 2015. It reviews a number of areas that have been priority themes for law reform, policy development, funding decisions and program delivery in Canada in recent years and examines the human rights consequences of both government action and inaction.
Creating jobs and growing the economy has been a top priority for the government for many years, generally advanced through Canada’s Economic Action Plan. The government notes that the Economic Action Plan “is helping fuel job creation, grow our economy and increase Canada's long-term prosperity.”2 However, crucial human rights obligations related to business and the economy are being ignored or watered down, including respect for the land and resource rights of Indigenous peoples, the need to strengthen corporate human rights accountability, and the importance of grounding trade policy and agreements in human rights principles.
- Law and order continues to be a defining value for the government. On many fronts, however, the government has failed to take steps that would tackle particularly egregious crimes. And far too often, approaches to policing and surveillance imperil rather than protect freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Treaties to prevent torture and to bring human rights rules to the deadly global arms trade remain unsigned. Canadian complicity in the torture of numerous Canadian citizens in other countries has not been addressed. Canada’s State Immunity Act makes it impossible for Canadians to sue foreign governments in Canadian courts for some of the worst crimes imaginable. And law reform to protect transgender individuals from hate crimes and discrimination is supported by police forces across Canada but opposed by the government.
- Families and communities are featured prominently in virtually all government announcements of new programs or plans for law reform. But too many families and communities are left behind; particularly those living in poverty or who face entrenched discrimination and marginalization. It is distressingly clear in government insistence that crucial economic, social and cultural rights such as housing, poverty and health do not merit the same protection as other rights. It is evident in the government’s refusal to launch a public inquiry and develop a comprehensive national action plan to deal with violence and discrimination against Indigenous women. And it is apparent in the objections advanced by the government in court to discrimination claims brought on behalf of Indigenous children living on reserves.
- Protecting national security and defending Canada’s borders have been mainstay concerns for the government. The government talks frequently of the need to tackle abuse of the country’s refugee determination system, referring often to so-called ‘bogus’ refugees.4 And national security reforms are being proposed due to concerns about terrorism in the aftermath of the October 2014 attacks against Canadian soldiers in St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu and Ottawa.5 Enhanced powers for security and law enforcement agencies have not been matched by long-needed adoption of an integrated oversight system to guard against abuses. Punitive and restrictive reforms have put refugees at risk of arbitrary detention, refoulement and denial of health care.
- Saving every woman, every child has become a signature priority of the government’s foreign policy and international development. It was the major theme of the G8 Summit hosted in Canada in 2010 and the follow-up Saving Every Woman Every Child: Within Arm’s Reach Summit in Toronto in May 2014.6 It has been matched by a determined effort to stop child early and forced marriage around the world.7 Canada’s important efforts to address these vital human rights concerns have, however, been repeatedly undermined by refusal to ground these programs in full respect for the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls; as well as a failure consistently to address ongoing concerns about women’s equality domestically.
- Promoting freedom, democracy and human rights have long been rallying cries in Canadian foreign policy, including recently. Canada speaks out forcefully for rights and democracy in many countries. However, concerns deepen about glaring inconsistencies, including with respect to Israel, important trading partners, and Africa. Similarly, Canadians imprisoned abroad often find that the government’s enthusiasm to defend their rights varies considerably. Troubling domestic actions have belied Canada’s commitment to freedom and human rights on the world stage. The government’s engagement with UN human rights reviews of Canada’s record is increasingly disappointing. Concerns also mount about government measures that have undermined advocacy and freedom of expression in Canada, contrary to the values the government promotes in its foreign policy.
The Human Rights Agenda highlights both domestic and global human rights challenges, noting the deep connection between the two. Paying close attention to universal human rights strengthens human rights protection in Canada. Improved human rights protection within Canada allows the government – and all Canadians – to press other governments to follow suit. In a world that becomes more closely inter-connected every year, the interplay between national and international human rights issues comes down to the simple reality that actions and decisions within Canada can and do have human rights consequences in other countries. Equally, human rights violations elsewhere may have a very direct impact on Canada and Canadians.
The Human Rights Agenda also emphasizes the important relationship among protecting human rights, social development and economic growth. For example, poverty and a lack of education restrict freedom and limit economic potential. Respect for the human rights at stake provides a platform for sustainable economic growth. Seeking growth through strategies that uphold human rights and that are agreed by people and communities affected can only lead to long-lasting economic progress.
The themes canvassed in this Human Rights Agenda – creating jobs and growing the economy; law and order; families and communities; protecting national security and defending Canada’s borders; saving every woman, every child; and promoting freedom, democracy, and human rights abroad will all likely receive attention from all political parties in the 2015 federal election. The Human Rights Agenda also highlights a range of concerns and recommendations with respect to torture, as part of Amnesty International’s current global Stop Torture campaign. In the lead up to that election Amnesty International urges the parties to clearly and concretely commit to:
- endorse the recommendations outlined in this Human Rights Agenda;
- ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture without any further delay; and
- pursue law reform, adopt policy positions and launch initiatives that fully conform to the unequivocal international ban on torture.