Holding Canada accountable to its human rights obligations

Posted on May, 19 2016 by Action Canada

Action Canada is working with relevant decision makers, at all levels of government, and other stakeholders to hold Canada accountable to its obligations under the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Covenant), as they relate to sexual and reproductive rights. As part of our work, we are encouraging the government to strengthen its compliance with human rights mechanisms by improving its monitoring and reporting to human rights bodies, strengthening relevant federal laws and policies, and ensuring provinces and territories respect, protect and fulfill individuals’ sexual and reproductive rights, in part, through the full implementation of the Canada Health Act and conducting more regular and meaningful engagement of a range of stakeholders.

What is the Covenant and why is it important?

Countries are periodically reviewed on their efforts to meet obligations under core international human rights treaties. In March, Canada was reviewed by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on its compliance with obligations under the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Committee members met to hear from civil society and other stakeholders on issues that should be raised during the review. Action Canada submitted a report to the Committee and the Committee responded by signaling that it would question Canada on the availability and accessibility of abortion and sexuality education in the country. (See Canada’s response here). Action Canada also prepared a more detailed report that focused specifically on Canada’s violations of Article 2 (maximum available resources and non-discrimination), Article 12 (health) and Article 13 (education).

Specific issues raised in the report include:

  • Canada’s obligation to realize social, economic and cultural rights through international development assistance (ODA)
  • Discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression
  • Access to sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion services
  • The denial of services on moral and religious grounds
  • Indigenous Peoples’ access to care
  • Comprehensive sexuality education

The report lays out clear evidence demonstrating Canada’s failure to take measures to address barriers despite having the responsibility and authority to do so.

Canada’s appearance before Committee

In February, Canada appeared before the Committee to respond to the List of Issues prepared in advance of the review. During the review, Canadian officials failed to provide satisfactory responses to Committee questions on sexual and reproductive rights; the Government of Canada cited federal/provincial jurisdictional barriers or refused to address specific issues altogether.

Canadian officials in Geneva either refused to address the issue or provided cursory responses despite being asked numerous times to discuss how Canada would address discrepancies in access to abortion services, whether Canada would implement a referral system for physicians who refuse to provide services on moral or religious grounds, and access to sexuality education.

On the issue of abortion, the government responded that through the Canada Health Act, provinces and territories must guarantee access to medically necessary services (which include abortion) but did not comment on what steps it would take to hold provinces or territories accountable.

The government ignored all questions related to sexuality education, referring to education as a strictly provincial jurisdiction. This is concerning given the severe discrepancies that exist in the delivery of comprehensive sexuality education across Canada – some students continue to receive misleading or inaccurate information regarding diverse forms of families, how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and where to go for non-judgmental counselling.

The Committee did not hear about whether Canada would play a leadership role in developing national guidelines for a referral system in cases when physicians refuse to provide services on moral and religious grounds. Canada cited federal-provincial/territorial jurisdictional issues as a barrier but in reality, the federal government is well within its right to ensure provinces and territories provide barrier-free access to health services in line with the principle of universality under the Canada Health Act.

Canada’s response raises questions around the country’s renewed spirit of engagement in UN processes and support for human rights globally.

Recommendations from the Committee to Canada

Following the review, the Committee released a set of Concluding Observations, which call on Canada to:

  • Raise ODA to meet target of 0.7% GNI, and pursue a human rights-based approach in its development cooperation policy,
  • Ensure access to legal abortion services in all provinces and territories,
  • Ensure that physicians’ conscientious objection does not impede women’s access to legal abortion services,
  • Ensure access to affordable contraceptives, and in particular those living in remote areas and those living in poverty. (The Committee refers to its general comment No. 22 (2016) on the right to sexual and reproductive health).
  • Intensify its efforts to eliminate the gender-role stereotypes and prejudices, including through awareness-raising campaigns,
  • Ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive national gender equality policy to address the structural factors leading to gender inequality,
  • Ensure access to the Interim Federal Health Program without discrimination based on immigration status,
  • Ensure that its national drug law and the National Anti-Drug Strategy incorporate a public-health approach and be harm-reduction-based,
  • Implement its commitment to review its litigation strategies in order to foster the justiciability of the economic, social and cultural rights,
  • Take steps to progressively develop and apply appropriate indicators on the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights, among others.

Canada has until March 31st 2021 to submit its next report to the Committee.

What Action Canada is doing to hold the government accountable

Action Canada will continue working with the Minister of International Development to ensure the integration of a human rights-based approach to development efforts and sustained increases in the ODA budget; with the Minister of Health to ensure that ongoing conversations regarding a renewed national health accord include a focus on access to abortion services (including medical abortion services, namely Mifefymiso) and that sexual and reproductive health services are affordable; with professional bodies to establish frameworks to regulate conscientious objection in line with international human rights standards; and with the Public Health Agency of Canada to update the sexual health education guidelines and work toward the elimination of gender stereotypes through awareness raising and education, among other strategies.