OTTAWA - The federal government clashed with a United Nations panel this week over whether a major international treaty applies to potential human rights violations by Canadian resources companies operating abroad.
The sharp difference of opinion was one of several flashpoints between Canada and the UN Human Rights Committee, which wrapped three days of hearings Wednesday in Geneva.
Canada had provided lengthy written answers last month to 24 questions on the implementation of 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 abuse.
In its written answers, Canada said it "strongly encourages" companies to implement corporate social responsibility measures, and if they don't the government will withhold "trade advocacy support in foreign markets."
But the committee pressed for more details on that and other subjects during the in-person appearance by the Canadian delegation, led by a senior Justice Department official.
In their testimony, the delegation appeared to shock the sensibilities of the 18-member committee when it evoked the principle of "extra-territoriality" for the employees of the 800 Canadian companies operating in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
That means that in the government's view the treaty applies to Canadians in Canada, but not those working in foreign countries.
"A country could not just provide corporate identity to a company and then be unperturbed by whatever the company could do around the world," a panel member told the Canadians, according to a UN document summarizing the proceedings.
The Canadian delegation pressed the issue saying, "individuals affected by the operation of Canadian companies abroad were thus not necessarily under Canadian jurisdiction."
But the head of the committee appeared to differ.
"The final arbiter for the interpreting the Covenant was the Committee, not individual States," said committee chair Fabian Omar Salvioli in his closing statement.
The Argentine human rights lawyer also noted that "activities of mining companies could affect many rights of local populations" and that "the issue of aboriginal peoples in Canada" was a major topic of inquiry during the hearings.
Shelagh Day, of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, a group that has advocated for aboriginal women, said she was disappointed by the Canadian response to a series of questions on missing and murdered aboriginal women, and other inequities involving First Nations.
"The comments of Canada regarding missing and murdered aboriginal women and Canada's relationship with aboriginal peoples ring hollow," she said.
"Canada is not engaged in a candid dialogue with the UN Human Rights Committee about its human rights performance, but in self-promotion."
The panel also noted that Canada had not "abided by the views of the committee" in deporting a Somali citizen who faced persecution and a Jamaican who was exposed to police brutality after deportation.
"Despite recommendations to the contrary, information was allowed to be shared with a foreign country in security matters even if that would lead to torture," the committee stated in the preamble to one question.
The Canadian delegation replied that "the committee's views were not legally binding, but Canada had accepted its views in a majority of cases."
The government also defended its policy of not providing health care to refugees, saying it believed it was complaint with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and stood by the new Citizenship Act.
The committee asked whether changes in the act that allow for the deportation of dual nationals convicted of terrorism, spying or treason could render someone stateless, but the government said they wouldn't.
The committee also asked for more details about new anti-terrorism legislation because "there were fears that it could lead to very wide surveillance."
The Canadian delegation said it was committed to protecting the rights of Canadians while combating terrorism.
The committee will issue a final report in two weeks.