It is time for Canada to recognize and protect economic, social and cultural rights, says Amnesty International ahead of UN review
Canada’s poor record of upholding important economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights will be in the spotlight on 24/25 February when the UN reviews the government’s record of compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights for the first time in a decade. The review will be carried out by the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
“While Canada’s protection of economic, social, and cultural rights has deteriorated considerably over the past decade, it had also languished for many years before that,” says Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English branch. “This UN review is a chance for the new government to commit to ending longstanding violations of the Covenant, which fuel discrimination and other human rights abuses across Canada.”
As a first step, Amnesty International recommends that the government convene a meeting of federal, provincial, and territorial ministers to devise an open process for implementing Canada’s international human rights obligations. They should recognize the indivisibility and interdependence of all rights when applying the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And they must make ESC rights judicially enforceable and subject to meaningful and accessible remedies in all jurisdictions.
“Responsibility for respecting Canada’s international human rights obligations rests with all governments in Canada. For instance, Amnesty’s brief documents concerns with Quebec’s austerity program,” said Béatrice Vaugrante, Director General of Amnesty International Canada’s Francophone Branch. “All provincial governments, who have constitutional authority over such critical rights as health, social services and education, must ensure that austerity measures do not disproportionately impact women or marginalized groups or lead to significant regression in protecting ESC rights.”
The critical flaws in upholding ESC rights in Canada disproportionately impact a number of groups, including Indigenous Peoples, persons living in poverty, migrants and refugees, women and girls, and persons with disabilities.
Indigenous peoples across Canada suffer a range of ESC rights abuses. A central concern is Canada’s persistent failure to recognize and uphold Indigenous peoples’ land and resource rights so that they can control and benefit from their lands. The obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of Indigenous peoples should be ensured in all negotiations or litigation. The government must establish rigorous formal mechanisms and processes to ensure that consultation with Indigenous peoples is meaningful and their rights protected in all decisions affecting their rights and livelihoods. In particular, the right of free, prior and informed consent must be incorporated into all resource development decisions and government support for corporations at home and abroad.
The new government has committed to a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples based on respect for their rights under Canadian and international law. Concrete action is now needed, with an eye to implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Amnesty brief points to the Site C Dam development in northeastern British Columbia, widely opposed by affected First Nations, and urges the UN Committee to press Canada to halt that project.
The federal underfunding of schools on First Nations reserves places First Nations children at a disadvantage that persists long into adulthood. The education system should be consistent with the best interests of the child and Canada’s obligation to protect and promote their languages andcultures, while respecting treaty rights and the right to self-government and self-determination. The failure to provide adequate funding for First Nations child and family services, addressed in a recent Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling, must be immediately addressed. And the issue of access to safe drinking water for more than 100 First Nations communities must be prioritized.
The new government has spearheaded a process of consultations in advance of launching an independent public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls later this year. There remains an urgent need to ensure the inquiry is national and not only federal in scope, examining the role and responsibility of all levels of government. Amnesty International’s brief calls for the inquiry to lead to a comprehensive plan of action to address the factors, including failure to uphold ESC rights, that put women and girls at risk,
There is also much to be done to reduce violence against non-Indigenous women and girls in Canada, which has not improved over the past decade. The brief recommends a national action plan to address the issue plus the enhanced collection of data about incidents of violence against women and girls.
Amnesty also calls on the government to pass legislation to add gender identity and gender expression to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the hate crimes provisions of the Criminal Code, a development that is long overdue and was part of the government’s recent election platform.
“There must be a concerted government response to end human rights violations against women and girls,” says Béatrice Vaugrante. “They make up the vast majority of persons living in poverty and access to ESC rights is critical to ensuring their security, dignity and equality.”
Migrants and Refugees
Health care for refugee claimants and refugees is being restored, with the reversal of punitive cuts imposed by the previous government. The scope of coverage remains unclear. Amnesty International’s brief notes there must also be equal access to essential health care for all individuals in Canada, including irregular migrants, regardless of immigration status. This is in keeping with a July 2015 recommendation from the UN Human Rights Committee.
Migrant domestic workers in Canada under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program are tied to their employers by their work permit and are vulnerable to abuse. They should be given open work permits allowing them to move freely between employers, improving their working and living conditions, notes the brief. These workers should have a guaranteed pathway to permanent residency including reasonable extensions to temporary visas. And those who experience human rights violations must have effective access to justice including legal aid.
Persons with Disabilities
There is no federal legislation protecting the right of children living with disabilities to inclusive education because education falls under provincial and territorial jurisdiction. There is variability across the country in how children with disabilities are treated.
The brief recommends that Canada ensure that education policies across all provinces prohibit the use of restraint, seclusion and aversion interventions, that inclusive assessments be prioritized for students with disabilities, and that teachers have adequate resources to support students with disabilities inside and outside the classroom.
Business and Human Rights
Canadian companies form a significant part of the global mining and extractive industry and must be held to account for human rights abuses resulting from their business operations. The brief asserts that Canadian companies should be bound by human rights standards that are part of Canada’s trade policies, to be monitored and enforced by a new Extractives Sector Ombudsperson. Legislation should be passed to ensure access to domestic courts for victims of human rights abuses arising from the overseas operations of Canadian extractive firms.
All Canadian trade deals should also be subject to independent and comprehensive human rights impact assessments before they are concluded and at regular intervals after coming into force.
The Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, in questions posed to Canada in advance of the upcoming review, repeated concerns about the government’s approach to homelessness and inadequate housing. The brief notes the failure of past governments to adopt a human rights-based housing strategy and calls on Canada to develop one designed to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the right to adequate housing including prioritizing the crisis of homelessness. Amnesty International is calling on the government to ensure that these elements will be included in the national housing strategy that was promised during the election.
There is also extensive food insecurity in Canada with one in eight households struggling to put food on the table. In the North—the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut—62 per cent of children are food insecure. The brief calls for a human rights-based national food strategy, developed in consultation with Indigenous peoples and civil society, for combatting food insecurity which ensures that discriminated groups are prioritized and protected against barriers to accessing food.
“These are just a few of the areas Amnesty International has highlighted where Canada is failing to meet its economic, social, and cultural rights obligations,” says Alex Neve. “The new government has made commitments and has begun to take some encouraging initial steps—but much more is needed before Canada can be found in compliance with the UN’s Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and thus able to serve as a strong model for other states.”
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