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Opinion

Canada has miles to go on human rights, UN says

Published on 29/07/2015

Some called it a “wake-up call” for Canada. Others were harsher and spoke of a rebuke of Canada’s apparent lack of respect for human rights. These and other comments followed the release of the findings made last week by the UN Human Rights Committee in their review of Canada’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which we have been a signatory since 1976. Clearly, Canada is falling short on its obligations to protect human rights.

Equally troubling, but not commented on as much, is the first matter of concern noted in the report: the fact that the recommendations themselves have nowhere to land in Canada. There is no institutional mechanism or office to receive the recommendations and take responsibility to answer to or act on them.

Canada may sign treaties and covenants declaring obligations, but these become empty promises when there are no mechanisms in place to uphold our accountability.

Overall, the report is a stark reminder that Canada still has a long way to go to fulfill its obligations to protect human rights. It details where we are falling short on a range of issues including gender equality, business and human rights, policing, freedom of expression, counterterrorism, and a variety of responsibilities as they relate to Canada’s relationship with indigenous peoples and First Nations.

Beyond these identified failings, it is important to note that this review was focused only on civil and political rights. The full range of social and economic rights was not addressed in this report. In fact, these rights have not been included in our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

There are legal arguments to be made about whether and how Canada’s Charter can be interpreted to better protect social and economic rights. For those of us concerned with finding solutions to poverty, it could be that this will be the next frontier in staking these claims.

At Maytree we have been working to deepen our understanding of human rights and poverty in Canada. We believe that by taking a rights-based approach we can open the door to finding new solutions to poverty. We also think that rights form the basic protection of all Canadians against arbitrary measures, whether those measures be perpetrated by government, business, institutions or other members of the community. We should all be concerned that a full set of rights are in place and operate effectively in Canada.

By focusing on rights that are inalienable and universal, we affirm the minimum standard of dignity for people in Canada. And it is not only government, but also business, civil society and individuals that share in the responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights, which we believe creates a strong basis for finding durable solutions to poverty.

At the core is a recognition that poverty is created and that it is systemic. And so we are turning our attention to the accountability and transparency of these systems, many of which are the responsibility of the state and a function of our social contract. It raises the question of the need for a renewed social contract in Canada, one which expressly articulates a commitment to securing access to social and economic rights.

Taking a rights-based approach to poverty involves measuring the progress (or regress) that we are making. It means setting goals and moving toward those goals.

But we need to know where we stand and what progress we are making. Are we collecting and sharing the data that is needed to make a meaningful assessment of how well we are moving the needle on poverty in our communities?

Building a culture of human rights means that individuals have access and ability to participate in the decisions that affect our lives. One important tool of public decision making in Canada is our electoral democracy. As we get ready for a federal election this fall, we are looking at the platforms and promises of the federal political parties that each want to form the next government.

Those of us who feel that social and economic rights are a vital part of the Canadian social contract should start by asking: Which candidates, parties and leaders demonstrate a commitment to human rights in Canada? Which value the collection of data that allows for evidence-based policy-making and measuring progress on reducing poverty? What is their vision for a renewed social contract in Canada that delivers economic and social protections to all Canadians? And how will they hold themselves accountable so we are not left with a platform of yet more empty promises?

It is our hope that the next government will put in place the right mechanisms so Canada can follow through on its promises to respect human rights.

We should expect no less.

Summary

By promoting and protecting human rights, we also create a strong basis for finding durable solutions to poverty.

Topic(s)

Human rights, Poverty