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Open letter urges Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to adopt 'transformative' human rights agenda in Throne Speech

    September 14, 2020

    The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau

    Prime Minister of Canada

    80 Wellington Street

    Ottawa, Ontario

    September 10, 2020

    Dear Prime Minister,

    We write this Open Letter, on behalf of 400,000 supporters of Amnesty International across the country, in times of considerable uncertainty, turmoil, injustice and fear; but also of mobilization, courage, determination, and possibility.

    Against that backdrop, you have indicated that your government’s upcoming Throne Speech will lay out a “plan to rebuild a stronger, more resilient Canada” and offer a “roadmap out of the pandemic towards a society that is fairer and more welcoming.” Central to those goals is the imperative to implement a genuinely transformative human rights agenda. This Throne Speech must acknowledge that respect for human rights will be central to all aspect of adopting laws, developing policy, making budgetary choices and taking action. Towards that vision, we urge you to take up the following seven recommendations:

    1. Recognize and uphold economic, social and cultural rights as the essential framework to a just, safe and transformative recovery.  
    2. Honour your promises to bring forward legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and fully fund the creation and implementation of a National Action Plan to implement the Calls to Justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
    3. Commit to concrete action to address systemic racism in Canada, including a ban on carding, street checks and racial profiling by all police and security agencies under federal jurisdiction, strengthening implementation of the federal Anti-Racism Strategy, and initiating consultations towards wider reforms such as options for defunding police.   
    4. Implement a feminist pandemic recovery plan which builds upon the Safe Restart Agreement and includes establishment of a fully-funded national childcare system to provide high quality, accessible, affordable, inclusive childcare for every family in Canada.
    5. By the end of the year, adopt legislation and policy, consistent with human rights obligations, that reflect current scientific, Indigenous and international best practices and knowledge to mitigate the global climate crisis, which will ensure a viable future on this planet for future generations and all species, and limit the global temperature increase by 2030 to no more than 1.5oC .
    6. Put in place effective implementation and oversight of Canada’s human rights obligations, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
    7. Commit to consistent and unconditional respect for international human rights in all of Canada’s bilateral and multilateral relations.

    Background

    We ignore today’s urgent challenges to our collective shame and at our collective peril. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare deep inequality at the heart of Canadian society, which can no longer be ignored. The failure to live up to the responsibility of all Canadians to advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples can no longer be ignored.  The refusal to address systemic racism at the root of continuing police violence against Indigenous, Black and racialized communities in the country can no longer be ignored. The harsh reality of gender inequalities and violations of the rights of women, girls, and gender diverse people can no longer be ignored. And the lack of decisive action to avert the global climate crisis can no longer be ignored.     

    The global context is of course also of grave concern.  In a time of polarization and conflict, fueled by leaders on all continents who are intent on advancing agendas of intolerance and hate, the paucity of unwavering, principled human rights leadership on the world stage is staggeringly apparent and deeply troubling.

    Amnesty International is calling for seven commitments to be reflected in the government’s Throne Speech, backed up by action and resources included in the next federal budget.

    (1)          Embrace economic, social and cultural rights

    1. Recognize and uphold economic, social and cultural rights as the essential framework to a just, safe and transformative recovery.  

    The many grave human rights travesties in the COVID-19 spotlight reflect deeply-rooted inequalities, racism, sexism, discrimination and exploitation that have remained unaddressed despite efforts of communities and activists to press for change over many decades. High rates of death of older people in long-term care facilities, concerns in isolated First Nations communities, low pay and poor working conditions for essential healthcare and other workers, the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on women and LGBTI people in the workforce, higher rates of COVID in racialized communities, increased levels of gender-based violence in the home, outbreaks among migrant agricultural workers and in meat-packing facilities, inadequate health care in prisons and immigration detention, risks faced by homeless persons, and heightened vulnerability of people living with disabilities all have one thing in common. 

    At the heart of all of these grave injustices is a failure and refusal -- endemic in governments at all levels in Canada -- to embrace economic, social and cultural rights, including rights to housing, education, health, food, clean water, safe working conditions and an adequate livelihood. It is not enough to recognize that changes are needed to Canada’s social safety nets. The pathway out of the pandemic will falter without recognition of the impact of intersectional violations of these fundamental rights.

    (2)          Demonstrate genuine respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples

    1. Honour your promises to bring forward legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and fully fund the creation and implementation of a National Action Plan to implement the Calls to Justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

    2020 began with a wave of protests across the country in solidarity with Indigenous land defenders in Wet’suwet’en Territory in British Columbia. While it was at times contentious and volatile, it also opened up much-needed debate and conversations about the consequences of the longstanding and disgraceful failure to recognize and uphold the land rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada. At the time there appeared to be some potential for new approaches, but this was overtaken and seemingly forgotten in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

    This Throne Speech must include concrete action that will spur progress in reconciliation with and strengthened respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples.  Two overarching commitments, among many others, that have been made previously by your government have been disappointingly delayed and there is uncertainty as to their standing.   

    (3)          End systemic racism

    1. Commit to concrete action to address systemic racism in Canada, including banning carding, street checks and racial profiling by all police and security agencies under federal jurisdiction, strengthening the implementation of the federal Anti-Racism Strategy, and initiating consultations towards wider reforms such as options for defunding police.    

    The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May sparked a wave of protests about entrenched anti-Black racism in policing and justice that continue throughout the United States. At the same time there have been renewed and increased demands to address the systemic racism that fuels police violence against BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) communities in Canada. Systemic racism permeates all aspects of society in Canada, including education, workplaces, arts and culture, retail and service industries, politics and government, law and the justice system, social services, the non-profit sector, and encounters with police.

    Recent video footage and accounts of killings and assaults of BIPOC individuals by the police, or troubling deaths during exchanges with police, has made it clear that there is far to go in addressing systemic racism and white privilege in Canada. There is not yet any convincing indication of concrete action toward that goal.

    (4)          Address gender inequality

    1. Implement a feminist pandemic recovery plan which builds upon the Safe Restart Agreement and includes establishment of a fully-funded national childcare system to provide high quality, accessible, affordable, inclusive childcare for every family in Canada.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated human rights abuses already being experienced by women and LGBTQ2S people. Rights abuses are felt most acutely by BIPOC and women and gender diverse people with disabilities. Increased gender-based violence, record job losses, increased unpaid care work, and lack of childcare are increasing inequality, and addressing these issues must be central to a feminist pandemic recovery plan.

    (5)          Take bold climate action

    1. By the end of the year, adopt legislation and policy, consistent with human rights obligations, that reflect current scientific, Indigenous and international best practices and knowledge to mitigate the climate crisis, which will ensure a viable future on this planet for future generations and all species, and limit global temperature increase by 2030 to no more than 1.5oC .

    While the health and economic crises provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic have swept around the world with devastating impact, attention to the global climate crisis has waned. At a time when delays can be catastrophic, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference has been postponed by one year. But the climate crisis itself has not been put on hold. Prime Minister, you have recently expressed an intention to launch an “ambitious green agenda” to guide Canada’s economic recovery from the pandemic. What is needed is a national plan to significantly reduce our emissions and phase out the production and consumption of fossil fuels, while ensuring that no one is left behind and that sufficient climate financing is available to countries in the Global South.

    (6)          Implement international human rights obligations

    1. Put in place effective implementation and oversight of Canada’s human rights obligations, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    While Canada has an admirable, though not perfect, record of signing on to human rights treaties and engaging with UN human rights reviews, the same cannot be said of the country’s record of living up to those obligations and implementing the recommendations from those reviews.  In 2017 your government hosted a long overdue meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for human rights. Ministers agreed to improve their approach to implementing international human rights obligations. There has been little progress and plans for a follow-up meeting in May 2020 were delayed because of the pandemic.

    Concerns about these shortcomings increased dramatically in the face of COVID-19.  The human rights impact of the pandemic and economic downturn is substantial. Institutions that provide human rights oversight, including Parliament, legislatures, municipal councils, courts and human rights commissions have been scaled back. Over 300 organizations and experts have called on governments in Canada to adopt measures to oversee the human rights impact of their responses to the pandemic.  Your government has indicated some interest in doing so, under the auspices of the Minister of Justice, but there has been no progress.

    (7)          Be a consistent voice for human rights around the world

    1. Commit to consistent and unconditional respect for international human rights in all of Canada’s bilateral and multilateral relations.

    Alongside the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, entrenched human rights abuse continues across the globe. Yet with governments preoccupied by the pandemic and many leaders fueling conflict and divisions, principled and decisive human rights leadership is lacking.

    Your government has adopted a feminist international assistance policy and committed to developing a white paper on feminist foreign policy, but contradictions and inconsistencies far too often belie that conviction.  That includes the:

    • refusal to cancel permits authorizing the sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, whose military is responsible for extensive war crimes in Yemen;
    • insistence that the US government’s record of respect for refugee rights is such that it is an appropriate refugee protection partner for Canada through the Safe Third Country Agreement between our two countries;
    • failure to live up to promise that the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise would be granted powers to carry out effective and independent investigations into allegations of human rights abuses associated with the overseas operations of Canadian companies;
    • lack of follow through on the 2016 commitment to accede to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, a vital mechanism for preventing torture worldwide;
    • withholding effective consular support to Canadians, including children, detained and facing grave human rights risk in NE Syria, raising troubling concerns about discrimination and unequal citizenship;
    • equivocal positions with respect to the status of unlawful Jewish settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory;
    • lack of action to respond to harassment and intimidation of human rights activists in Canada campaigning with respect to human rights violations in China; and
    • inconsistent positions about human rights concerns in Latin America, where forceful diplomacy with respect to the crisis Venezuela is not matched in Brazil, Colombia, Honduras or other countries in the region facing troubling human rights crises.

    Prime Minister, Amnesty International has often called on you and your predecessors to make human rights a priority. We do so with particular urgency and expectation at this time. That is because the scale of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, and the large-scale recovery efforts that are required provide an unprecedented opportunity for fundamental change. We cannot afford measures that take us back to where we were.

    Addressing those realities is not a matter of tweaks or of a launching a reform agenda as is conventionally imagined. It is not a matter of simply spending more money (though how spending priorities are set is certainly part of the equation). Rather, this is a time for change that is truly transformational; change that will necessitate considerable political will and leadership. This is the time for change that is entirely about human rights.

    Sincerely,                

    Alex Neve                                                           France-Isabelle Langlois

    Secretary General                                            Directrice générale

    Amnesty International Canada                   Amnistie internationale Canada francophone

    (English branch)

    rights