Tuesday was the Canadian government's first opportunity to address the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, which is conducting the first review in 10 years of Canada's compliance to a major international treaty.
The committee, comprised of 18 experts, heard repeated concerns about Canada's extractives industry, the treatment of aboriginals and anti-terrorism measures from two dozen groups, including the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International.
The committee asked Canada to provide answers to 24 separate questions about how it implements the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — including how it monitors the human rights conduct of Canadian resource companies operating abroad, some of which face lawsuits alleging abuses.
"Please inform the committee of any measures taken or envisaged to monitor the human rights conduct of Canadian oil, mining and gas companies operating abroad," said the list of issues given by the committee to Canada last fall in preparation for Tuesday's testimony.
"Please also inform what the available legal venues are in the state party for victims of human rights abuses arising from overseas operations of Canadian extractive firms."
Laurie Wright, the senior Justice Department official who led Canada's delegation, did not address the issue in her six-page opening statement.
Instead, she highlighted four topics, two of them related to the treatment of aboriginal affairs, along with the terrorism and the treatment of immigrants.
"While challenges remain, we are committed to addressing them, and to our ongoing work in building an open, free and peaceful society where people from diverse backgrounds can live side by side and prosper," Wright said in prepared remarks.
But at the hearing, the committee members persisted. They returned to the topic of Canada's foreign-based resource companies and several other areas of questioning that were not addressed in Wright's opening remarks.
Amnesty International, in its submission to the panel, argued that any human rights initiatives taken by companies are purely voluntary, and no enforceable code of conduct exists. It urged the committee to recommend a way for overseas litigants to pursue legal action in Canadian courts.
Alex Neve, the executive director of Amnesty International, pointed out that the federal government's jurisdiction extends only to conduct within Canada's borders.
Neve, who attended the hearing, said committee members pointed out that the UN treaty deals not only with what happens within the borders of a country, but also the general conduct of its citizens.
The committee also asked Canada to address a number of other areas that have sparked controversy, including:
— what measures had been taken to compensate Abdullah Almalki, Ahmed El-Maati and Muayyed Nureddin, who were tortured in Syrian prisons after Canadian officials were found partly to blame for sharing information about them.
— whether the government planned to reverse cuts to health services for refugee claimants, and "respond to allegations that such cuts may undermine their rights to life and freedom from ill-treatment."
— asking the government to comment on allegations that it has taken punitive measures to limit the freedom of expression of "civil society organizations and human rights defenders that promote women's equality, the rights of Palestinians, and environmental protection and corporate social responsibility . . ."
Wright did not specifically respond to those three issues in her opening address to the committee.
The panel will announce its findings in two weeks, after reviewing the performance of a series of countries, including Britain, France and Uzbekistan.
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