Amnesty International's Human Rights Agenda for Canada report calling for action


DECEMBER 18, 2013

Time for Consistent Action - Amnesty International's Human Rights Agenda for Canada

   "Time for Consistent Action" - Human Rights Agenda for Canada, December 2013


"Canada has taken a strong position on human rights in countries like Iran and Sri Lanka but in others cases like Colombia, China and Malaysia it has subordinated human rights to economic interests."

This year Canada's human record was up for review at the United Nations. But the government has dismissed criticisms made during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and made no commitment to close the gaps in human rights protection, says Amnesty International. These failings have prompted an update of the organization's 2012 Human Rights Agenda for Canada highlighting issues that must still be addressed in the months to come.

"It was a missed opportunity to set a positive example for other countries on how to deal with these reviews," says Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada's English branch. "It reflects a growing tendency to dismiss and disengage from the UN and ignore some of Canada's international human rights obligations."

The calls by a number of countries during the UPR process for Canada to develop a comprehensive national plan on violence against women and hold an inquiry into missing and murdered women must be accepted by the government, says Amnesty International. Canada must also respond to the pressure to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture designed to identify signs of torture and push for reforms to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

There are critical outstanding issues in eight areas. The rights of Indigenous peoples, woman's human rights, business trade and human rights, refugees and migrants, Canadians at risk abroad, human rights and poverty, freedom of expression and Canada's global human rights standing that all need immediate attention.

With hundreds of resource development projects underway in the next decade, the federal government along with provincial and territorial governments must recognize Indigenous people's right to free, prior and informed consent that was established in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It must be a principle incorporated into the approval process and practices for projects related to extractive industries at home and abroad.

Canada has been active in the area of safeguarding women's human rights and pushing to end laws that criminalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgendered and intersex (LGBTI) individuals. While championing the issue of stopping sexual violence in conflict and early and forced marriage, the government must also ensure that Canada's overseas development program funds a full range of sexual and reproductive health services that are available to women and girls.

In the area of business and human rights Amnesty International has pressed for laws holding corporations accountable for their human rights performance. The victims of corporate human rights abuses arising from the overseas operations of Canadian extractive firms should have legislated access to Canadian courts. 

The non-judicial grievance mechanisms the government has established have proven to be disappointing failures. What is needed is the creation of an extractive-sector Ombudsperson, with the power to independently investigate complaints and make recommendations.

In 2013 the changes in Canada's treatment of refugees and migrants, that the 2012 agenda noted "sacrifice fairness, violate rights and are punitive in nature", went into effect. The treatment of "irregular arrivals", the denial of access to the Refugee Appeal Division of claimants from 37 "designated countries of origin" and the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act and the lack of appeals are all critical problems.

The impact of the cuts in funds for health services for refugee claimants and refugees in Canada has also been severe. Amnesty International is endorsing the Provincial and Territorial Ministers of Health call in October 2013 to reverse these cuts.

"The treatment of refugees is flawed and the current resettlement policy for refugees from Syria has been shamefully inadequate," says Beatrice Vaugrante, Director General of the francophone branch of Amnesty International Canada.

The July 2013 announcement to resettle 1300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014 only includes 200 through direct government resettlement. In the first nine months of 2013 only 9 Syrians had arrived. With over 2 million Syrian refugees in the region Canada has to boost the number who will be resettled here.

In the treatment of Canadians who have experienced human rights violations abroad the inconsistencies in Canada's approach have given rise to concerns about discrimination and encouraged the perception that human rights have taken a back seat to commercial and other interests.

The government failed to acknowledge that Omar Khadr was a child soldier at the time of the July 2002 incident that was the basis of his conviction. And they have not provided remedies despite the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada twice concluded that Canadian officials have violated Omar Khadr's rights.

Important recommendations from the Inquiry into Maher Arar's case remain unimplemented. Even after a 2008 judicial inquiry into Canadian complicity in the torture of Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nurredin in Syria, these individuals they have been forced into protracted litigation rather than being given an official apology and compensation.

In the area of economic, social, and cultural rights the government has failed to treat these as enforceable rights that can be judged by the courts. They are treated as aspirational or second class rights undercutting the international legal principle of the indivisibility of all rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amnesty International is calling on Canada to accept the recommendations made by United Nations human rights experts and develop rights based national action plans or strategies to address poverty, homelessness and food security in Canada.

While the scope of human rights is being diminished by the Canadian government, the space for active and diverse dissent within Canada is also collapsing. Groups are being muzzled, defunded and shut down. The Voices-Voix Coalition has detailed 80 cases. And the possibility of public dissent and protest is shrinking. Issues arising from the 2010 G 20 protests and 2012 Quebec students actions remain unaddressed.

"A commission has been established in Quebec to review the student protests," notes Vaugrante. "But it lacks powers to compel evidence, cross examine witnesses, and carry out the necessary investigations."

While Canadians are vulnerable to the erosion of their rights at home, the human rights position of the government on the world stage has been inconsistent. Canada has taken a strong position on human rights in countries like Iran and Sri Lanka but in others cases like Colombia, China and Malaysia it has subordinated human rights to economic interests. Foreign policy has now been refocused on advancing Canada's economic interests into what has been called "economic diplomacy".

Canada has also diminished the level of engagement with and respect to the international human rights system. The government must rebalance the equation, says Amnesty International, and develop an International Human Rights Action Plan that ensures consistent action for human rights as a foundational dimension of Canadian foreign policy.

"In the anti-apartheid struggle Canada was a champion of principled internationalism and respect for human rights", says Neve. "Canada can take the lead again by putting human rights protection at home and abroad at centre of everything we do." 


For further information contact John Tackaberry, Media Relations (Ottawa)       (613)744-7667 #236

                                   Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, Media Relations (Toronto)       (416)363-9933 #332

Report:  An Update to Amnesty International's Human Rights Agenda for Canada - Time for consistent action