Canada’s Human Rights Record Being Challenged at the United Nations

Since 2009, and most recently last December at the United Nations Sixty-seventh General Assembly Plenary, various countries—particularly Iran and North Korea—have raised various challenges to Canada’s human rights record. However, on April 30, 2013, it was reported that members of the United Nations Human Rights Council have formally challenged Canada’s human rights record, with 83 countries making recommendations for enhanced rights protections. This challenge refutes Canada’s status as a human rights leader and indicates that Canada must take immediate action on socio-economic disparities.

This challenge is part of the Universal Periodic Review process (UPR) under the auspices of the Human Rights Council. The review process provides the opportunity for each UN member state to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries, to fulfil their human rights obligations, and to be judged by their peers. The ultimate aim of this mechanism is to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur. This peer review is conducted every four years.

So what issues and questions about Canada’s human rights record were raised during the April 26, 2013, review in Geneva?

As stated in the summary of the report:

  • Steps to prevent violence against indigenous women
  • Measures to improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples including access to social services
  • Efforts to combat discrimination against minorities and vulnerable groups
  • Policies and programs to address poverty and food insecurity
  • Measures to fully uphold the rights of the child
  • Steps to fully respect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees

For example, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Slovenia, Sweden and Mexico submitted questions about Canada’s response to violence against indigenous women and girls. While recognizing efforts made by Canada on this issue, China, the United States, Estonia, Finland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Slovakia, Togo and others expressed concerns about the situation during the review, and made recommendations to the government.

States participating in the dialogue submitted the following recommendations to Canada:

  • To take further steps to prevent violence against indigenous women and girls and to develop a comprehensive national strategy for addressing such acts
  • To consider setting up an independent national enquiry into missing indigenous women
  • To take further legislative and administrative measures to improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples and to ensure access to education for all Aboriginal girls
  • To ensure parity of funding and services between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities
  • To ensure the effective implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), with particular focus on Aboriginal peoples
  • To enhance participation of indigenous people in consultations on public policies that affected them; to continue to engage with civil society groups
  • To continue to combat racial discrimination, including among minority groups, immigrants, people of African descent and Muslims
  • To remove disparities in the implementation of anti-racism legislation, polices, programs and best practices
  • To take measures to address the concern raised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the lack of prevention of child sexual exploitation and to consider establishing an office of the ombudsperson for children
  • To fully recognize the right to safe drinking water and sanitation
  • To reinforce policies and programs developed to address poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, health care services and education
  • To continue to fully respect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees
  • Ratification of human rights instruments: The Convention on the rights of migrant workers, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Convention on enforced disappearances, the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education, the third optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the American Convention on Human Rights

The United Nations has decided to investigate these allegations, and the Canadian government has until September to respond to the recommendations. The government has given the UN permission to send three rapporteurs to Canada to probe our record on human rights.

A rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the UN’s Human Rights Council to examine and report on a country’ situation or a specific human rights theme. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will start their investigations this summer.

A government official told the National Post:

While we look forward to talking about our human rights record, we also take the UN’s review with a grain of salt…some of the countries ‘reviewing’ Canada, like Iran, have abhorrent human rights records. This is a country that hangs guys and stones women.

I am not saying all the allegations are valid, but I do believe that the Canadian government should take the issues, questions and recommendations seriously. There is increasing concern among Canadians that recent events, new legislation and court decisions have caused our country to fall way behind in human rights and civil liberties, even if our accusers have worse records than us.

It may be politically effective to attack the character of the accuser because the government doesn’t like the message or where the message comes from, but it does nothing to address the issues. A government that is confident in its past achievements, current standing and future plans should not need to deflect and point the finger elsewhere.

It’s important to remember that it is not only disreputable countries that have concerns about Canada’s human rights record.

The government says it is looking forward to discussing Canada’s human rights record with the UN rapporteurs. Hopefully this means more than crowing about the current government’s ostensible achievements, and includes a conversation about concrete plans to act on the UN members’ concerns.


  1. It’s such a red herring the ne’er do well nations that are casting the stones which the media have been focusing on. Canada has an awful lot to account for in how we’ve treated our indigenous peoples right up to and including the present.

  2. Ginger Goodwin

    It is funny how mild, reasonable and undeniable criticism turns the Conservatives into rabid animals. We seem to be on the way to reliving the late Roman period until the early Medieval Age, which lasted 3 to 5 centuries: the Dark Ages. Others have written about historical retreat: usually it is lived first as tragedy, second as farce: we can only hope that this will be the case. I wonder if Michael Jackson’s moonwalk is not a visual representation of just such an occurrence. There is art in tragedy (tragedy by definition is unavoidable, but this usually refers to individuals, not whole societies, for which these man-made phenomena are usually self-evidently not tragic, and are understood as such at the time of the occurrence.)

    Ginger Goodwin