Reclaiming Canada's role as leader on human rights

In a report released today "Getting Back On The 'Rights' Track" , Amnesty International outlines a human rights agenda for Canada. It provides a blueprint for leadership at home and a consistent and principled stand for Canada abroad that should be adopted by all politicians during the election campaign. And it must be implemented by those who win the election. The report covers human rights issues within Canada including Indigenous rights, women's human rights and the need to protect the rights of Canadians abroad. And it calls for global leadership by Canada in areas such as maternal health, economic, social and cultural rights, and on rights in the Miiddle East. 

Canada’s standing as an international human rights champion has dropped. In the days leading to the election all parties must make concrete commitments to help to restore its leadership role, says Amnesty International. As Canadians go to the polls they have a crucial opportunity to reflect on these fundamental issues.
“Deep at the core of the well-being, safety and prosperity of a country, and its place in world, is the approach a country takes to human rights issues,” says Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “Canada must reclaim its leading role in human rights.”

In a report released today Getting Back On The “Rights” Track , Amnesty International outlines a human rights agenda for Canada. It provides a blueprint for leadership at home and a consistent and principled stand for Canada abroad that should be adopted by all politicians during the election campaign. And it must be implemented by those who win the election.

“In recent years there has been a decline in Canada’s international human rights leadership,” notes Shetty. “There has been erosion of Canada’s past policies including a principled and non-partisan reputation in the Middle East. There was opposition to a declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. And action on economic, social and cultural rights including the right to water has faltered.”

What should be done, the report notes, is for Canada to develop Middle Eastern foreign policy positions that are grounded in equal recognition of the universal human rights of all peoples in the region. A strong human rights framework must guide efforts to tackle maternal mortality. Work must be undertaken to develop an implementation plan for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. And Canada must act on economic, social and cultural rights. These rights must be protected by allowing individual international level complaints by Canada ratifying the Optional Protocol to the ESC Covenant. And Canada must recognize the right to water and sanitation in international law.

“Canada can be a human rights champion again,” says Salil. “Candidates vying for office must know that Canadians are expecting and demanding they meet this international human rights challenge.”

Restoring Canada’s human rights leadership abroad is one half of the equation. The other half of what needs to be done is at home. Canada’s companies and trade deals must be firmly grounded in human rights. “As leaders in the extractive industries Canadian companies have become laggards on human rights protection,” says Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. “There should be mandatory legislated human rights standards for overseas operations and independent impact assessments of all trade deals.”

The persistent gap in the standard of living between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada must be closed. There has been a consistent and longstanding failure of federal and provincial governments to recognize land rights and gross disparities in access by Indigenous people to adequate child welfare, water, education and housing.

“The treatment of Indigenous Peoples has been called a national disgrace,” says Beatrice Vaugrante, Director General of the francophone branch of Amnesty International Canada. “It is Canada’s most serious and longstanding human rights failing that needs to be fixed.”

Equally, the rights of refugees and migrants arriving in the country both have to be respected. The treatment of those who arrived on Canadian shores on the Sun Sea last August has been decried as “nothing short of an abuse of process” by a Federal Court judge. The proposed solution, Bill C-49, has been opposed by all opposition parties. It violates fundamental human rights principles, such as arbitrary arrest and detention, must be scrapped and not reintroduced.

While those arriving in Canada have not always been well treated, Canadian citizens and permanent residents abroad have not been adequately protected by their own government. The list of  places where problems have happened grows long - China, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Guantanamo Bay, Iran, Egypt and on death row in the US state of Montana. The Canadian government has in some cases, refused to intervene or done so minimally; while in others the intervention has been rebuffed. Canada has also contributed in cases to human rights violations abroad. Despite inquiries and rulings by the Supreme and Federal Court, cases have not been resolved.

“The treatment by Canada’s government of Canadians abroad cannot be left to chance,” says Neve. “Consular assistance must be a clear right in Canadian law and if individuals experience violations of their rights as a result of actions by Canadian officials they must be compensated.”

Canadians have been abused abroad while in Canada Indigenous women and girls experience high levels of violence and discrimination. The report calls for a comprehensive national action plan to address this longstanding human rights crisis. Many women’s human rights organizations also need to regain eligibility for federal funding for research and advocacy to promote women’s equality. “The risk of dying from violence is much greater for Indigenous women and girls than other women and girls,” notes Neve. “With a national plan and resources this scourge can be prevented.”

The cuts to research and advocacy funding for women’s organizations is part of a much larger pattern in Canada. Independent voices covering issues from the rights of Palestinians, to refugee protection and international aid have been vulnerable to cuts if they receive any funding from government. “The respect and support for democratic space and human rights advocacy must be restored”, says Vaugrante. “A fundamental part of our democratic process is at stake.”

Amnesty International’s report addresses a broad range of human rights issues that must be tackled if Canada is to reclaim its place as a leader. They are fundamental issues and concerns that should be part of the debate leading up to the election. They go to the core of what Canada was and could again be as a human rights leader at home and abroad.

“Canada has clearly gone off the human rights track internationally and nationally,” notes Shetty.“But it can get back on track by addressing the issues in Amnesty International’s human rights agenda for Canada.”

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