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Opinion

International boost for human rights in Canada

Published on 25/02/2016

Along with close to 50 representatives from non-governmental and Indigenous organizations, we have spent the past week in Geneva as observers and participants at the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ review of Canada. We came to Geneva to present to the Committee on where these rights are not being protected and where they might be strengthened.

The range of issues reviewed was long and comprehensive, as it should be. Economic, social and cultural rights are human rights and are as important to a healthy and equitable society as civil and political rights. Participating civil society organizations provided the Committee with facts and analysis on the various elements of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the experience in Canada.

Maytree’s contribution to this process was focused on the systems in place to protect rights at the municipal level. In the past, this Committee has highlighted that the obligation to protect and secure these rights applies to all levels of government, including municipalities. But the reality is that municipalities in Canada often have little or no knowledge of their responsibilities and are not held accountable to their Covenant obligations.

Our key message to the committee was that there is a particular moment of opportunity in Canada right now. All provinces, with the exception of one, and more than 50 cities across the country have adopted or are preparing poverty reduction strategies. None of these uses a human rights framework. They don’t explicitly state that the strategies will be meeting the needs of people living in poverty by addressing and protecting their human rights. These strategies could be significantly strengthened by adopting a human rights approach, including language, goals and requisite mechanisms to ensure accountability.

We were delighted to hear Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food (2008-2014) and member of the Committee, encourage the Canadian delegation to move on this opportunity. And we hope the Canadian delegation, including members from the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and BC, will take this message back to Canada and encourage action.

It was very instructive for us to see how seriously members of the UN Committee considered the views of civil society organizations. They were very open to discussion with NGOs, and read the materials provided to them, often incorporating elements in their questions to the Canadian government delegation.

The lessons we’ve taken from this are twofold. Engaging in serious research and analysis, which can stand up to the scrutiny of international experts, is an important foundation for a contribution to the public discourse. As well, engaging with influential bodies outside of Canada, particularly when Canada has committed to their covenants and protocols, can provide a real boost to the recognition of the issues we think are important to our society.

Attending this review was an important step in getting economic, social and cultural rights recognized, protected and strengthened in Canada, and we look forward to reading the final report of the committee.

As we wrote in our submission, Maytree is committed to being a partner with civil society and all orders of government in Canada to work toward achieving this goal.

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Summary

With more than 50 cities across the country adopting or preparing poverty reduction strategies, there is a particular moment of opportunity in Canada right now.

Topic(s)

Cities and communities, Human rights, Poverty