CWP and the HRC
In July 2015, CWP was honoured to be invited to participate in the United Nations Human Rights Committee review of Canada under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). CWP prepared a written submission regarding Canada’s compliance with the ICCPR and presented oral submissions to the Human Rights Committee at the formal briefing on July 6, 2015.
When countries are under review, the Human Rights Committee asks for additional written information from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from the country in the form of “alternative reports” which contain information to fill the gaps in the official State report and offer a more honest perspective on the State’s performance. Ideally, this information is provided in the early stages of the review, to provide the Committee with context and extra information to question the State about. NGOs are also welcome to contribute information in later stages of the review process and to present their findings orally to the Committee. Indeed, NGO participation in the review process is crucial to ensuring that the Committee has an accurate idea of the human rights situation in the country in question.
CWP has a history of being invited to comment on Canada’s human rights record at the UN – in the 1990s, NAPO (as CWP used to be called) provided testimony three times on Canada’s record on upholding the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Since then, CWP/NAPO submitted documents twice to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the same subject, most recently in early 2015.
The focus of CWP’s latest commentary on Canada’s human rights record was split between the Income Tax Act (and its restrictions on Canadian charities) and the connection between poverty and the right to life under the ICCPR.
CWP argued that the Income Tax Act (ITA), specifically section 149.1, is being applied in a way that possibly infringes Articles 19 and 22 of the ICCPR – the rights to freedom of expression and association, respectively. Section 149.1 of the ITA outlines the restrictions on charities’ ability to carry out “political activities” — which has been interpreted to mean that a charity cannot devote more than 10% of its resources and time to activities deemed to be political. An example of a prohibited action is communicating to the Canadian public that an existing law or policy ought to be changed or opposed. The consequences for not complying with the 10% rule are grave; charities are threatened with losing their charitable status, which would effectively eliminate their donation base and ability to function. Many charitable organizations, including CWP, rely almost entirely on donations to operate. The result of this threat is a climate of silence and a chill on public debate and action on poverty-related issues and other human rights areas.
CWP strongly recommended that the Human Rights Committee be aware of this silencing climate and and has suggested that Canada be asked to re-examine section 149.1 with its obligations under the ICCPR in mind.
CWP’s other recommendation concerned the failure of Canada to take positive measures to address poverty in Canada — despite its wealth and resources — as a violation of Article 6 of the ICCPR (the right to life). The indicators of extreme poverty are visible across Canada, from the nearly 1 million households facing food insecurity, the estimated 250,000 homeless people, and approximately 4.8 million people living in poverty. CWP referenced the previous calls from the Human Right Committee and UN officials for Canada to adopt a national housing strategy, which have not been heeded by the federal government. The crux of CWP’s argument was that the failure of the Canadian government to take positive steps to address extreme poverty and its manifestations (i.e. hunger, homelessness, health issues) actually prevents people living in poverty from enjoying their right to life. Further, CWP supported the recommendation put forth by other Canadian NGOs that Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which enshrines the right to life domestically, be interpreted more broadly.