Canada has ratified a number of UN treaties, declarations and conventions confirming a commitment to both civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights. But it is not enough to sign a document – that is only the first step in acknowledging human rights. The most important part of the commitment is demonstrated through action. Without progressive implementation (essentially making rights real), human rights remain ‘good intentions’, and that does not put food on the table or a roof over your head.
Today in Geneva, fellow member-states of the United Nations had the opportunity to review Canada’s human rights record as part of Universal Periodic Review process. In total, 83 countries made statements and offered recommendations to Canada, echoing the concerns of organizations in Canada that have been dedicated to seeing human rights fulfilled. Issues in the spotlight included violence against Aboriginal women and girls, poverty, homelessness, income supports, relationships between government and civil society, and endorsing appropriate mechanisms to support human rights claims from within Canada.
Over three hours of conversation between member-states and the Canadian government demonstrated that NGOs had been heard – Canada was called on to start “walking their talk”, something civil society has been asking for and made note of in reports, statements and press releases since the last review in 2009.
Although the Canadian government asserted that it believes Canada is leader in the area of human rights, there are a number of gaps in the fulfillment of rights (economic, social and cultural rights in particular) that refute that claim and demand further inspection. Recognizing this Canada was asked to:
- Develop a national poverty strategy and national strategy to combat homelessness (Cuba, Russian Federation, Egypt, Malaysia, Sri Lanka)
- Develop employment and income supports for vulnerable groups (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
- Take all measures to combat violence against women, and in particular against Aboriginal women and girls (US, Cote D’Ivoire, China, Finland, Estonia, Germany)
- Continue to engage with civil society (United Kingdom)
- Develop a national strategy for food security to help all citizens realize the right to food (Brazil)
- Develop a national action plan for Indigenous Peoples (Cape Verde) and for violence against Aboriginal women and girls (Ireland, Norway)
- Improve the socio-economic conditions of Aboriginal peoples and ensure they have access to education and health
- Ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. (Spain, France)
- Create a national plan for water and sanitation (which was in reference to Aboriginal communities with poor drinking water) (Spain, Ecuador)
In the lead-up to this year’s UPR, civil society groups submitted reports to the UN Human Rights Council in October, 2012 commenting on the governments’ progress in fulfilling human rights obligations. A total of 48 reports were speaking to issues ranging from health concerns, to violence against women, poverty, homelessness, hunger, disrespect for special procedures at the UN (such as Special Rapporteurs) and lack of consultation with, and general hostility towards, civil society.
It was affirming to hear other governments make recommendations to Canada on how to correct and improve current human rights issues. Despite the fact that the federal government has commended itself for being a leader on human rights (something the government stated is a ‘strength of our country’ in their UPR country report), the reality in Canada tells a different story, especially when you look at poverty.
In response to recommendations on poverty, a government representative firmly stated that the goal of this government is to create jobs. There was no acknowledgement that this is too narrow a view to end poverty and that other supports such as housing, childcare, education and living wages need to be considered.
In the 2010 National Council of Welfare report that looked at the cost of poverty, the organization noted that,
“If the benefit Canada seeks is to enable people to survive in poverty, then we have achieved a measure of success. This, however, is achieved at great societal expense. If success means ending poverty and its costly consequences, a different approach is necessary.”
Stating that there have been improvements to poverty and that the government is confident that provincial and territorial services are adequate suggests that this federal government would rather turn a blind eye than face facts. Hiding behind the excuse that poverty is not within federal jurisdiction, the Canadian delegation in Geneva pointed to the complexity of federalism when asked why 3 -4 million people remain in poverty and why a recent bill for a national housing strategy was defeated (Bill C-400).
Human rights cannot be excused because of the structure of government. It is up to the government to develop systems to fulfill human rights and ensure that they are being respected and protected across the country. Interestingly, the United Kingdom picked up on this and recommended that the Canadian government not let Federal/Territorial/Provincial jurisdiction present obstacles to implementing human rights obligations.
The next step in this process is a response from Canada next Tuesday on the recommendations made today. Following that, the federal government will have until September to consider what recommendations it is willing to accept.
CWP will post an update on Tuesday when the response is submitted to the Human Rights Council.