Canada - Time to match international commitments with national action
It is time for Canada to match international commitments with national action, says Amnesty International Canada in a new human rights agenda released today. While Canada has a strong record of accepting international obligations, including human rights treaties, the record is less exemplary in complying with findings and recommendations for Canada. Canadian human rights issues will be examined by the United Nations Human Rights Council as part of the Universal Periodic Review in 2013. Canada must take action to be ready for this international human rights scrutiny.
“Concerted action is needed,” says Alex Neve, Secretary General of the English branch of Amnesty International Canada. “It will take leadership, and long overdue cooperation and coordination among federal, provincial and territorial governments. But it cannot wait any longer. Canadians whose rights are affected need assurance that Canada will meet the country’s international obligations”.
Amnesty International Canada’s Matching International Commitments with National Action: A Human Rights Agenda for Canada outlines concerns in eight areas that must be addressed. They are the rights of indigenous peoples, women’s human rights, corporate accountability and trade policy, the rights of refugees and migrants, Canadians subject to human rights violations abroad, economic, social and cultural rights, the shrinking space for advocacy and dissent, and engagement with the multilateral human rights system.
Indigenous peoples across Canada continue to face a grave human rights crisis. This challenge has been consistently and strenuously raised by UN experts and committees. The concerns include equal access to essential government services, such as child protection and a safe water supply. There are major deficiencies in the recognition of land and resources rights across the country, with continued government resistance to the right to free, prior and informed consent in respect to resource development projects.
To address these problems Canada should work with Indigenous peoples and organizations to develop a program of action to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that includes measures respecting the right to free, prior and informed consent.
Little progress has been made in reducing violence against women and girls in Canada. It is particularly prevalent amongst Indigenous women. Police do not consistently record whether or not victims of violent crime are Indigenous. However, a 2004 government study found rates of domestic violence and sexual assault were three and a half times higher than rates for non-Indigenous women. And as of March 2010, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has documented 582 cases of Indigenous women and girls who had been murdered in the last three decades, or remained missing after many years.
“UN human rights experts and bodies have repeatedly noted the poor conditions facing Indigenous women, and women from disadvantaged minorities in Canada,” notes Beatrice Vaugrante, Director General of the francophone branch of Amnesty International Canada. “Violence and discrimination against Indigenous women and girls in particular must be addressed by the government with a national plan of action.”
Canadian companies abroad should also be required to conduct business in ways that minimize the likelihood of contributing to human rights violations. The notion that voluntary codes will do the trick when it comes to protecting these rights misses the mark. There is a need for Canadian legislation that establishes a clear and binding framework to govern the operations of Canadian companies abroad. In March 2012 the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted that Canada had failed to take measures to ensure that Canadian based companies did not have a negative impact on the rights of Indigenous peoples. The Human Rights Agenda asserts that these protections must be in new measures for all transnational companies registered in Canada.
Canadian companies must comply with international human rights obligations. And it is critical that human rights not be traded away in the many free trade and investment protection agreements being signed by Canada. Human rights should also be at the centre of the assessment of any proposed takeover by foreign entities of Canadian companies.
Within Canada fairness cannot be sacrificed to expeditiousness in immigration and refugee protection. Amnesty International is concerned, as UN human rights committees have been, that special treatment of refugee claimants from what are considered to be “safe countries of origin” is discriminatory and punitive. Canadian law also continues to allow the deportation of a person who poses a risk to national security to a country where they would face a serious threat of torture. This is a clear violation of Canada’s obligations under Article 3 of the UN Convention against Torture and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act must be reformed to conform with this principle of non-refoulement.
No-one can be deported from Canada to face torture and Canadians who have been subject to torture and other graves abuses in other countries must have the right to effective remedies for these violations within Canada. The State Immunity Act allows foreign governments to be sued for matters arising from “commercial activities” but provides no such possibility for grave concerns as war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture. The efforts to sue governments like Iran and Syria for damages arising from torture must not be thrown out of court with the Canadian government taking the side of the foreign government in these cases.
The difficulty Canadians have obtaining redress from the Canadian government, when Canadian officials have contributed to the human rights violations they have endured, must also be addressed.
Maher Arar did receive an apology and compensation but that was exceptional. Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati, Muayyed Nurredin and Abousfian Adelrazik are all still before the courts. And is not clear how Omar Khadr’s case will be handled. The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that his rights had been violated by Canadian officials when he was in Guantanamo Bay but did not specify the remedy. Canadian survivors of torture and other abuses should not be forced to fight for redress in expensive, time-consuming court proceedings.
Canada must respect all human rights. The distinction between civil and political rights, and economic, social, and cultural rights, with the latter not being legally enforceable has no basis in law and has been rejected by UN human rights experts and monitoring bodies. But the federal government, for example, continues to argue that the right to adequate housing cannot be enforced by the courts.
The Canadian government should take all necessary steps, including legislative measures, to create and ensure effective remedies for violations of economic, social and cultural rights.
The Human Rights Agenda also notes the shrinking space for advocacy and dissent in Canada. It has become evident in recent years that governments are prepared to use a variety of measures to stifle voices with which they disagree. This has starkly played out on the streets at the June 2010 G8 and G20 Summits in Toronto, and in Montreal in the spring of 2012. Independent public inquiries are needed into the human rights violations that occurred during these demonstrations. The rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association have been eroded as well within Indigenous communities. There must be an inquiry into human rights violations at Tyendinaga, in Ontario in 2007.
Canada has strived consistently to bolster and strength UN human rights institutions, process and standards. But there has been a lagging record of complying with international requirements. A number of key international human rights treaties need to be ratified. The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture that establishes an important international and national prison inspection scheme designed to help prevent torture was adopted by the UN in 2002. Canada indicated the intent to ratify the protocol in 2006 and again in 2009. It is time to do it without delay.
Ratification of the Optional Protocol is one part of a larger process. The principal recommendation in the Human Rights Agenda is for a process of law reform with all governments, Indigenous peoples organizations and civil society groups, to establish a mechanism to ensure that Canada’s international human rights obligations are effectively implemented across the country.
“In 2013 Canada’s human rights record will again be under review as part of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review,” notes Neve. “Compliance with the international obligations outlined in the Human Rights Agenda will significantly strengthen both protection at home and Canada’s human rights advocacy on the global stage. And a new national framework for doing so is essential to that goal.”
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Report: Matching International Commitments with National Action: A Human Rights Agenda for Canada