Canada must implement UN recommendations to end violations of economic, social, and cultural rights
The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights issued its Concluding Observations today following its review of Canada’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights last month. It is the Committee’s first review of Canada since 2006 and the first review of Canada by any UN human rights body under Prime Minister Trudeau’s government.
The Committee has forcefully rejected the position advanced by the government on numerous occasions over many years that economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights are of a different nature and not susceptible to the same level of judicial enforcement as civil and political rights.
“For too many years - be it at the UN, in Parliament or before the courts - the Canadian government has maintained the position that rights dealing with such essential concerns as health, housing, education, food and water are not enforceable to the same degree as other rights,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, English branch. “That flies in the face of international law and has once again been refuted by UN experts. It is time for the Canadian government to turn a page on this untenable position and recognize that economic, social and cultural rights must be upheld and defended equal to all other rights.”
The Committee expressed numerous concerns about the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada, including the failure to consistently respect Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) in relation to resource development on their lands. The Committee called on Canada to “fully recognize” FPIC in laws, policies and in practice.
The Committee was concerned about the persisting social and economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, including disparities in access to housing, education and health-care services. It urged Canada to ensure access to safe drinking water and to sanitation for First Nations. Importantly the Committee specifically called on the government to fully comply with the recent Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling concerning the provision of child and family services in First Nations reserves.
The Committee draws attention to the concern that climate change is negatively impacting the rights of Indigenous peoples, and highlights weakened environmental protection regulations in recent years. The Committee urges Canada fully to engage Indigenous peoples in developing policies and programs dealing with climate change and also to strengthen the regulation and approval of resource development projects, including environmental impact assessments, to meet international human rights obligations.
The Committee called on Canada to strengthen programs and policies with respect to the rights of Indigenous peoples in a number of ways, including by promoting and applying the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, providing increased levels of federal and provincial funding, and implementing the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“The Committee welcomed the new government’s pledge to address the situation of Indigenous peoples but was also deeply concerned about continuing lack of progress and the many barriers that stand in the way of protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples,” said Alex Neve. “Concrete action is now needed to demonstrate the substance behind Canada’s new tone. A tremendous first step would be to halt construction of the Site C Dam in British Columbia, which is proceeding in the absence of the consent of affected First Nations communities.”
The Committee called on Canada to strengthen legislation with respect to the human rights impact of Canadian corporations operating abroad including by establishing “effective mechanisms to investigate complaints” and adopting measures to “facilitate access to justice before domestic courts by victims of these corporations’ conduct.” The Committee also recommended that trade and investment agreements negotiated by Canada recognize the primacy of Canada's international human rights obligations over investors’ interests, so that the introduction of investor-State dispute settlement procedures do not create obstacles to the full realization of Covenant rights.
“The Committee has made it clear that businesses must be held accountable for human rights when they operate abroad and that Canadian trade policy must put human rights first,” said Béatrice Vaugrante. “With numerous serious concerns about the human rights impact of Canadian extractives companies outside Canada and with upcoming debate about ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, these recommendations are particularly timely.”
The Committee also recommended that Canada monitor the introduction of austerity measures by provinces and ensure that they do not undermine the minimum core content of all the Covenant rights, and that such austerity measures are not discriminatory and are temporary, necessary and proportionate.
“The Committee noted that austerity measures in areas such as healthcare and education disproportionately impact women and vulnerable groups,” said Béatrice Vaugrante, Director General of Amnesty International Canada’s Francophone branch. “All provinces should conduct a robust human rights impact assessment of any retrogressive budgetary measures to ensure that women and marginalized groups are not disproportionately impacted.”
On the topic of migrants and refugees, the Committee highlighted that certain categories of foreign workers, including temporary and seasonal migrant workers, such as those working as caregivers, are vulnerable to exploitation by employers especially as their work permit is tied to a specific employer. The Committee also expressed concern that undocumented immigrants in Canada are denied access to healthcare, and recommended that the government ensure access to the Interim Federal Health Program without discrimination based on immigration status, in line with a similar recommendation from the UN Human Rights Committee last year.
The Committee welcomed the decision to establish an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, but expressed concern about the persistence of violence against women in Canada which is particularly prevalent among Indigenous women and girls and further exacerbated by the economic insecurity of women. It encouraged Canada to study the link between poverty, ethnic origin and vulnerability to violence, and take effective measures aimed at preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls.
The Committee called on Canada to ensure that steps take to develop a national food policy and a national strategy on housing are both human-rights based.
The Committee urged governments at all levels in Canada to work together more closely to uphold economic, social and cultural rights. It recommended that ESC rights be incorporated into inter-governmental agreements and in enabling legislation for municipalities, and that transfer of payments take compliance with Covenant rights into account.
“The fact that the provinces have responsibility for areas of critical importance for the realization of ESC rights under the Constitution, such as education and healthcare, makes it all the more important that there be strong federal, provincial and territorial coordination to implement the Committee’s recommendations,” says Alex Neve.
“At this critical juncture the federal government should take the lead in drawing governments together to establish more effective mechanisms for implementing international human rights obligations,” said Béatrice Vaugrante. “A starting point would be the first ministerial human rights meeting to be held in Canada since 1988.”
The Committee’s recommendations touch on overarching matters of concern that have implications for the rights of all people in Canada and who are impacted by Canadian laws, policies and actions outside the country. They go to the heart of Canada’s failure over many years to adequately respect and uphold the country’s international economic, social, and cultural rights obligations. Many of the Committee’s recommendations reiterate the concerns it expressed in its review of Canada 10 years ago, highlighting a troubling lack of progress in advancing the status quo.
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