Ottawa Citizen-Yes, even Canada can improve on human rights BY ALEX NEVE DECEMBER 19, 2012

In 2012, Canada’s human rights record received an unprecedented amount of review by UN human rights experts. All of the attention ruffled a few feathers and provoked some criticism of the UN. But it must instead be viewed as an opportunity and responsibility to improve our human rights record.

The recommended reforms emerging from the reviews would go far in addressing long-standing human rights shortcomings in the country, particularly with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples. And they add to recommendations from previous years dealing with such important human rights concerns as women’s equality, refugee protection, the relationship between business, trade and human rights, concerns about poverty and homelessness, Canadians at risk abroad, and signing on to crucial human rights treaties such as one designed to help prevent torture.

Individuals and communities affected await implementation of the reforms. It is of global significance as well. If Canada demonstrates best practice in complying with UN human rights advice, we can more credibly press other countries to do likewise.

Independent UN committees responsible for supervising treaties dealing with racial discrimination, torture and the rights of children reviewed Canada’s record in February, May and September. Their concerns touch on such serious challenges as violence against indigenous women, failure to comply with the absolute ban on deporting people to a risk of torture, and upholding the equality rights of indigenous children.

The UN expert who monitors the right to food visited Canada in May. While his report is not yet out, in public comments he noted that for an affluent country such as Canada far too many people live every day without enough food.

In June, various UN experts, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, flagged concerns about emergency laws enacted in Quebec in response to the mass student protests earlier this year.

All of this attention does not mean that there was a decision to gang up on Canada. It was a coincidence of timing. The three reviews come around on a regular basis and just happened to intersect this year. The country visit is a regular part of the work of experts known as special rapporteurs and had been planned for quite some time.

Critics, including government ministers, derided the UN experts for wasting their time and having misplaced priorities. They pointed to other countries, such as Syria, where violations are much more serious and where the UN should focus its attention.

Well of course UN human rights bodies and experts spend a vast amount of time researching, reviewing, criticizing and urging countries like Syria. But that is not the point. The point is that the international human rights system is premised on the fundamental principle of universality. Human rights belong to all people, everywhere. And the human rights system applies to all governments, everywhere.

When a country belittles UN human rights scrutiny by any means — including by suggesting the problems are not serious enough to warrant attention — it opens the door for other countries to follow suit. And they will do so; gleefully. That is particularly the case when the country in question is Canada, viewed as a champion of the global human rights system.

So rather than view this year of human rights review as a headache, Canada should recognize the opportunity and responsibility; to address unacceptable human rights failings and show leadership in a world lacking human rights leaders.  The deeper problem is that Canada does not have an effective system for ensuring that UN recommendations are actually implemented.

Many human rights obligations, particularly those dealing with economic, social and cultural rights, have proven very difficult to meaningfully enforce in the courts, particularly in the face of obstructive government legal arguments.

The recommendations are directed at the federal government, which is active at the UN. But they often touch on matters within provincial jurisdiction, such as education or health care; or shared between federal and provincial governments, such as law enforcement and corrections. That complicates implementation, but is certainly not insurmountable.

Successful implementation is also set back by excessive secrecy, going back decades. The only committee that brings federal, provincial and territorial government officials together to talk about human rights meets twice a year, behind closed doors. It is virtually impossible for members of the public to determine what they are discussing.

And there is no political accountability and unclear political responsibility. No one federal minister bears overall responsibility for ensuring we meet our international human rights obligations. And there has not been a federal/provincial/territorial ministerial meeting to discuss human rights since 1988.

The coming year offers a timely opportunity to turn this around. The 2012 recommendations need attention. And in 2013 there will be an additional UN review, the Universal Periodic Review that every country undergoes once every four years, conducted by other governments.

And it will have been one-quarter century since the last ministerial human rights meeting. It is a perfect time to bring ministers together. Ministers should ensure that existing recommendations are implemented.  And they should launch law reform across the country that would bring co-ordination, transparency and accountability to the implementation of our international human rights obligations.

 Alex Neve is secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

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