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Canada Must Take A Stand Against Human Rights Violations

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Chris Wattie / Reuters

By Alex Neve

Céline, a tenacious grassroots women's human rights defender in Chad, once asked me, "If our views are not sought and we are not free to express them, how can we hold the government to their promises?"

She has, to say the least, been outspoken in her own views and unrelenting in her own efforts to open the space for women's voices in Chadian politics and decision making. She has also paid a considerable price, including arrest, imprisonment and times spent in hiding.

From the moment Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion and International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau took up their posts in November, they have been tasked with working together to "champion the values of inclusive and accountable governance, peaceful pluralism and respect for diversity, and human rights including the rights of women and refugees." Those values of governance, pluralism, diversity and human rights are now a major theme in the international assistance review.

Céline's words of wisdom from the frontlines underscore how central this theme must be to all of Canada's global efforts, be it international assistance, multilateral diplomacy or bilateral relationships. Three key dimensions to take on board are enabling participation, confronting discrimination and ensuring access to justice. All are grounded in universal human rights.

Women, men and youth must be free to participate in the debates and processes that lay the ground for good governance and lead to good public policy. Yet around the world Amnesty International has documented a worrying trend in exactly the opposite direction. The rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association are increasingly ignored, restricted and blatantly violated worldwide.

We see it in laws that impose unjust limits on the activities of NGOs, cut off their access to financial support from abroad, and institute criminal offences such as insulting state officials, blasphemy and overly broad definitions of terrorism. We see it as well in arrests, attacks and killings of human rights defenders. Civic space is shrinking. Defending human rights is more dangerous. Fear is rising.

Canadian assistance efforts must boost the efforts of activists working to promote human rights in their communities.

Discrimination continues to be rampant on every continent. Every treaty, declaration or set of principles dealing with human rights protection or international development guarantees equality and prohibits discrimination. Yet the lived daily reality is that people's futures, dreams and prospects are inextricably determined by their gender, the colour of their skin or their social background. Until that reality shifts from exclusion to inclusion, international development efforts will be inherently undermined.

There are three areas of leadership which Canada should pursue in confronting discrimination. One, longstanding, is women's equality. A shift from saving women and girls from harm and abuse, to empowering women and girls as agents ready to claim and uphold their rights is essential.

A second, more recent, is sexual orientation and gender identity. Expanding beyond a limited but important focus on tackling criminalization of homosexuality to a broader framework of gender equality is needed.

The third, a glaring failing which must be rectified, is respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples. Canada's recent unconditional support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples domestically provides the framework needed for our global efforts.

Finally, promises inevitably remain empty without implementation and accountability. And that is impossible without access to justice, particularly for the most marginalized communities.

One key priority is opening up access to justice for individuals who suffer human rights harms associated with the operations of Canadian mining, oil and gas companies in their communities. In recent years Canadian international cooperation programming encouraged Canadian mining investment around the world, but without any commitment to addressing the inevitable human rights concerns that arise.

Given the extensive global reach of Canadian extractives companies, we have an incumbent responsibility to ensure access to justice when people's well-being and livelihoods are impacted when Canadian firms come exploring and digging. It must be a priority to establish an extractive sector ombudsperson and put in place other measures that open up access to justice in this area.

The overarching message? Canada's international assistance efforts should stand on three pillars: actively standing up for human rights, promoting the universality of all rights for all peoples, and ensuring justice and accountability when governments and other actors don't deliver on their obligations and promises.

This blog was first published on July 6 in the Hill Times

Alex Neve is Secretary General at Amnesty International Canada

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

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