Canada Under Fire For Human Rights Record

Photo: United Nations - Geneva

Canada has a long history with the United Nations, most of which can be characterized by a generally cooperative undertone, as demonstrated by Canada’s participation in every UN mission since 1957. However, this relationship has grown strained as of late, deteriorating further on June 8 when the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, included Canada on a list of some of the world’s worst human rights violators.

In an address to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Pillay stated that she was, “disappointed” by the recently established law known as Bill 78, passed by the Québec government in response to the province’s recent student protests. She went on to say that the bill, “restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly,” and that she was “alarmed” by a growing global trend toward the restriction of democratic rights.

The conflict over Bill 78

The section of Bill 78 that Pillay has criticized requires that groups of more than fifty must contact authorities at least eight hours before a planned protest and provide both a route plan and itinerary of the event.


Bill 78 was passed after the student protests over hikes in tuition fees became increasingly violent, resulting in clashes between protestors and police, and the destruction of both private and public property. However, once Bill 78 became law, protestors claimed that it infringed upon their rights to assembly and freedom of speech, as Pillay has now suggested.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has defended the Québec government under Liberal Premier Jean Charest, stating that the province has the right to pass its own laws.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said, “Québec is a very democratic place, subject to the rule of law. People can challenge the government’s decisions in court so I stand behind the government of Québec.”

A constitutional challenge of that nature would not be the province’s first. The most notable example, occurring in 2005, is Chaoulli v. Québec (Attorney General). Québec doctor Jacques Chaoulli challenged the constitutionality of the Québec Health Insurance Act and Hospital Insurance Act, which prohibit private health insurance, a challenge prompted by the long wait times experienced by those reliant on the province’s public health care system. Chaoulli won his case before the Supreme Court of Canada with the Court finding that the Acts were in violation of the Québec Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Despite Chaoulli’s victory, such a challenge is a costly and rare venture for most citizens to undertake. What makes such an attempt an even less reasonable solution for the issue at hand is the fact that the Supreme Court is comprised of judges chosen by the Prime Minister, and due to the imminent retirement of three more judges by 2014, seven of the nine will indeed have been selected by Harper himself.


Mixed responses

After Pillay’s inclusion of Canada on a list of severe human rights violators, international NGOs had mixed reactions, some taking the opportunity to draw attention to a lengthening list of human rights concerns to do with Canada’s Conservative government.

Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, Alex Neve, responded in support of such releases from watchdog groups. Neve stated, “What we need to hear and see from Canada, rather than them attacking the message or ridiculing the process or even delegitimizing the process, is to simply engage in a genuine manner with respect and substance.”

Other NGOs were more critical of Pillay’s report. Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of the NGO UN Watch, says that while there may be problems with the Québec law, criticizing a country like Canada for its human rights record while there exist other countries with far worse records is “absurd.” Neuer also points out that the law in question “Was adopted by an elected democracy and will now be scrutinized by a series of independent courts,” referring to the current challenge of Bill 78 in Québec’s Superior Court, and that Pillay’s scrutiny should be aimed at the countries “that desperately require the UN’s attention.”

Mounting international criticism

Previously, the UN condemned Canada for changing its refugee policy to one that is far more compromising for the health and safety of asylum seekers, as well as for the government’s treatment of alleged war criminals.

On June 1, the United Nations Committee Against Torture issued a report accusing Canada of “complicity” in torture cases, and issued a list of recommendations to aid the government in improving its practices. Specifically, the report condemns the Canadian government for repeatedly turning prisoners over to Afghan authorities during Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan despite knowledge of the “substantial risk” of torture by those authorities.

The report also takes issue with the government’s preference of deportation over prosecution of alleged war criminals. The UN has suggested that this practice increases the chance that war criminals will dodge recapture and prosecution altogether.

The Committee also states that Bill C-31, which, taking effect on June 30, reforms Canada’s Immigration and Refuge Protection Act may “increase the risk of human rights violations.” The government remains adamant that Bill C-31 is intended to curb human smuggling, but the report voices concern over the way in which the new measures allow the government to detain asylum seekers without judicial oversight and denies applicants from so-called “safe” countries the right to appeal a rejected application. The criteria for determining a “safe country” is entirely up to ministerial discretion, as is the definition of “mass arrivals” of refugees. The new law also allows the government to retroactively designate mass arrivals.

Recent nation-wide protests by medical practitioners have expressed concern over Bill C-31’s denial of supplemental health benefits for resettled refugees and asylum seekers, providing them with treatment only for conditions which pose a public threat.

Following the Bill’s passing in the House of Commons, the official opposition party’s Immigration and Citizenship Critic Jinny Sims said, “In the international community, I believe this is another black eye for Canada.”

The Harper government has been dismissive of these accusations, and has reacted critically to Pillay’s statements. Industry Minister Christian Paradis made a public statement on behalf of the government. He said, “We have a strong judicial system in this country that actually allows citizens to challenge laws when they feel they cannot be constitutional. It is indeed strange that the high commissioner would make such remarks given the dire situations in Syria, Iran, Belarus and Sri Lanka.” He closed by stating, “It’s long past time to reconsider our UN membership. As long as they allow every dictator to join, it’s only about the lowest common denominator.”

Neve has commented on the Canadian government’s opportunity to address the recommendations in the report and improve its human rights record, saying that until it has, Canada is in no position to legitimately condemn other human rights violators.

A reputation at stake

Canada and the UN have enjoyed years of fruitful relations. In fact, Canada has contributed more to UN peacekeeping missions than any other nation. A Canadian scholar and lawyer, John Peters Humphrey, established the Division for Human Rights within the UN Secretariat and was a principle drafter of the Declaration of Human Rights.

However, within the past half decade, Canada’s participation in UN missions and programs has decreased, and in 2010 the Harper government failed to win a bid for a non-permanent Security Council seat; the first time this has occurred. Many attributed the loss to a changing foreign policy which was out of alignment with the principles of the United Nations. Canada withdrew its bid for a seat after it appeared certain that Portugal had gained enough votes to win the remaining seat.

In response to the lost bid and accusations that an increasing bias in Canada’s foreign policy toward sympathy for Israel, in addition the withdrawal of aid to Africa in favour of increasing aid in its own hemisphere, Dmitri Soudas, chief spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, defended his government’s policies. Soudas stated that, “We did not barter our foreign policy,” shifting blame to the then opposition leader, Michael Ignatieff, who felt that Canada had not “earned” a seat, given its recent international record, and having “ignored” the UN for years.

The current official opposition, the New Democratic Party, shares the former opposition leader’s view of the Conservative government’s poor international reputation as contributing to this fallout with the UN. The NDP’s Foreign Affairs Critic, Paul Dewar, claims that the failure to win the Security Council seat can be attributed to recent disagreements between the Harper administration and the UN over Canada’s human rights record.

“We are losing our credibility” he says, adding in regards to the government’s contentious new Bills, “We need to earn back our seat at the Security Council. This is not how you do that.”

These mounting criticisms of Canada’s human rights record may one day serve as motivation to the current government to change its policy direction. As Dewar and others have suggested, Canada is losing credibility where it was once an international champion of human rights. The country’s new priorities do indeed appear contrary to the historic achievements which precede them. The United Nations has provided the Canadian government with numerous suggestions with which to improve this record, and subsequently its reputation.

The critics considered have emphasized that a return to high international regard can be gained through the practice of respect toward the aforementioned reports, as well as a dignified consideration of the principles of the organization Canada once so proudly helped to found. Regardless of Harper’s indifference to the reports, they remain critical reminders of the fact that international organizations are indeed aware of the concerns of Canada’s citizens, and keeping an eye on the administration in question.

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