According to the federal government Canada is a human rights leader, but this status was openly questioned at the Human Rights Council last week in Geneva. Under review for the second time as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, Canada found itself facing recommendations to step up its efforts to fulfill human rights and explain why little has been done to date.
A total of 83 countries made statements to Canada at the UPR, the majority of which called on the government to address socio-economic disparities, violence against women and a poor record of engagement with Indigenous peoples.
This is déjà vu -- in the 2009 UPR process similar recommendations were made and Canada agreed to "continue to address socio-economic disparities and inequalities that persist across the country," stating that it will continue "to explore ways to enhance efforts to address poverty and housing issues, in collaboration with provinces and territories."
These promises have not been acted upon.
In fact, particular decisions made by government are contrary to the recommendations received: voting down Bill C-400 in February, the bill for a national housing strategy; closing down of the National Council of Welfare; cancelling the long-form census; and changes to EI that will force some recipients to accept jobs farther from home for less pay. These decisions undermine efforts to address poverty and inequality. Currently, 3-4 million people in Canada are living in poverty, between 150,000-300,000 people are visibly homeless and almost 4 million people experience hunger -- Canada has some serious work to do.
Having ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the federal government is obligated to spend the "maximum of its available resources" to ensure human rights are fulfilled. Implementing economic and social rights, such as the right to adequate housing and food and an adequate standard of living, requires government investment which may seem prohibitive. But consider this -- the cost of keeping the status quo is actually double the cost of addressing poverty. This has been researched and reiterated by the National Council of Welfare and several organizations in the country.
Critics claim that the UN should focus on developing nations, but this is the cry of individuals willing to overlook human rights abuses in their own backyard. The purpose of the UPR is to hold all governments, all countries, accountable to human rights standards. This is the principle of universality -- whereby every state is subject to review regardless of wealth, status, etc. The federal government has an opportunity -- and an obligation -- to implement international standards and improve the lives of people living in Canada; why would anyone disagree?
What makes human rights violations in Canada so egregious (levels of poverty, lack of national standards addressing homelessness and inadequate housing, unsafe drinking water in many Aboriginal communities, and levels of violence against women), is the wealth this country produces and the democratic system in place that is meant to support all people. Civil society groups have been pushing these issues for years and continue to stress the need for action.
The UPR was established as an open process to engage in constructive dialogue with civil society, however, the Canadian government has made little effort to engage with organizations between reviews. The government touts an email account set up to receive comments on the UPR found on the Canadian Heritage website as the high water mark of their outreach. This is far cry from "engagement" and is an about-face from the 2009 review where monies were allocated for face-to-face engagement sessions between government officials and NGOs across the country.
Close to 50 civil society groups and Indigenous organizations from across the country submitted reports to the UN Human Rights Council in October, 2012 commenting on the governments' progress in fulfilling human rights obligations, and several (including Canada Without Poverty) travelled to Geneva to make presentations. The reports provided to the UN an outline of the need for the federal government to develop concrete measures to implement human rights.
Canada has until September to respond to the recommendations and civil society organizations will be watching intently.
It is time to step it up Canada; commitment without action is meaningless.