Canada is far from perfect when it comes to its domestic human rights record. Obviously the scale and gravity of concerns do not compare with tragedies unfolding in countries like Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo, the threat to survival faced by so many of Colombia’s Indigenous nations or the relentless discrimination women endure in Afghanistan. But the concerns are nevertheless very real and longstanding, ranging from the alarmingly high and entrenched levels of violence experienced by Indigenous women to punitive new immigration detention laws; from the failure to tackle homelessness in the country to national security practices that sell human rights short. As such, UN level review and scrutiny of Canada’s record plays an important role in drawing attention to shortcomings and building pressure for reform.
Those UN reviews happen with fairly regular frequency. The independent committees set up to monitor compliance with the key UN human rights treaties take a look at how Canada is doing on average every 5 or 6 years. Experts, usually known as Special Rapporteurs, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to maintain vigilance with respect to a range of human rights topics, visit Canada on occasion to check things out and make recommendations. And more recently, a new Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process carried out by states of states, an innovation that Canada championed when it was instituted as part of a UN reform process back in 2005, puts Canada under the human rights microscope once every four years. Canada’s first UPR was in February 2009, the second took place at the end of April 2013.
None of this is unique to Canada. It applies to all states. The international human rights system is, after all, universal. That includes Canada.
Canada engages constructively, for the most part, with these various reviews. Comprehensive reports are prepared, Special Rapporteurs are welcomed. Government delegations head off to Geneva to field questions.
But that is only step one when it comes to protecting human rights. The real test, and the real difference on the ground, lies in what happens to the outcomes of these various reviews and visits. Are the recommendations taken seriously? Are they implemented? Without implementation, the international human rights system is nothing more than an illusory promise.
Sadly, that is where things completely fall apart with Canada. Canada’s record of implementing international human rights recommendations is, to put it mildly, dismal. The problem is threefold. First, being a federal state, with responsibility for implementation spread across and sometimes shared by different levels of government, poses complexity which requires an effective system to be put in place. Second, no such system exists. Third, there is no political will or leadership to put one in place.
As such it is impossible for Canadians to in any way track the government’s intentions or progress in complying with recommendations dealing with their rights. There is no way of finding out if the government accepts or rejects the recommendation; which level of government or which government department is responsible; and what the timeline might be. There is no system that brings federal and provincial Ministers or their designates together to make decisions about what to implement and how to do it. In fact Ministers have not gathered in Canada to talk about human rights since 1988; one-quarter century ago. Parliament and legislatures have been given no role in overseeing any of this. And it is all shrouded in some of the deepest secrecy that exists within government. A mid-level Committee of federal, provincial and territorial officials has been gathering twice a year to share information about international human rights matters. That Committee will not publicly disclose either its membership or its agenda.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the list of unimplemented recommendations grows longer every year. It is also no surprise that UN monitoring bodies and experts express increasing exasperation with Canada’s approach. When Canada comes up for review a second or third time they see virtually no progress in taking up the previous recommendations and an utter inability to even explain the status of any given recommendation.
None of this bodes well for greater human rights protection in Canada. And that is unfortunate, as many of the recommendations provide a detailed and constructive road map for resolving some of the country’s most pressing human rights challenges.
It is also distinctly unhelpful on the international front. Any number of times Canada, rightly, points a finger at other countries, countries with far more egregious human rights records, and urges them to comply with the latest UN recommendations. How persuasive is Canada’s voice if the country concerned can point right back and say, we’ll do so when you do so.
Over the past eighteen months this longstanding stasis on the implementation front has taken on an even more troubling tone. The government has repeatedly ridiculed, derided and even personally insulted UN experts and monitoring bodies when they have carried out reviews of Canada’s record. The suggestion has been that Canada should not be reviewed when there are other countries where the problems are much, much worse. It undermines the fundamental notion of universality that is at the very heart of the international system.
Canada’s second turn before the Universal Periodic Review in April 2013 could mark an important juncture. Sadly, there will be little to boast about in terms of implementing recommendations from the last UPR, four years ago. But it does offer a chance to come clean; to admit that Canada’s system is broken (actually never really was in good repair) and something new and different is needed.
An impressive and diverse coalition of sixty civil society groups and Indigenous peoples organizations from across the country have made a submission to the UPR stressing that it is time for Canada to develop an International Human Rights Implementation Act. Good intentions will not fix this problem; it needs law reform. Committing to do so would help strengthen human rights protection in Canada. It would also show global human rights leadership, at a time when that is desperately needed but sadly lacking.