Statement before the Senate Committee on Human Rights

In February 2012, ACPD (now Action Canada) appeared before the Senate Committee on Human Rights to deliver the following statement.


Thank you, Madam Chair. Honourable Senators, good evening.  It’s a great privilege to once again appear before this Committee as a witness.  I’ve appeared before the Committee twice previously when it was looking at the start of the new UN Human Rights Council and Canada’s role at the Council.  I want to congratulate the Committee for this follow-up inquiry to its previous reports on this issue and especially on its timing.  These hearings come at an opportune time with the Human Rights Council’s 5-year review having just been completed, with the 2nd cycle of the Universal Periodic Review just beginning, and with the Government of Canada commencing preparations for its 2nd UPR in mid-2013.

My organization, Action Canada for Population and Development, is a human rights advocacy organization focused in the area of reproductive and sexual rights and health.  We are heavily engaged in advocacy work at the Human Rights Council and we work with partners overseas to ensure that these issues are addressed within the Universal Periodic Review.

I wish to make a few comments this evening on (1) progress and challenges in the work of the Council and the UPR after the 5-year review, and (2) on Canada’s participation in the work of the Council and UPR.  I will end with some suggestions for improving Canada’s role in this respect.

First of all, the outcome of the 5-year review, completed last July, of the Human Rights Council was completely underwhelming.  The review did not significantly alter the functioning or working methods of the Council or its mechanisms.  Robust improvements envisioned by NGOs to enhancing State cooperation with the Special Procedures, and to the UPR process, among other things, did not materialize.

The Council remains a bit of a mixed bag in terms of the resolutions that it adopts, with both resolutions that advance the cause of human rights and a few that run counter to human rights norms.  Fortunately, the former are by far the vast majority, and we see the Council making strides in some new areas that the show tremendous progress of the body.  For example:

  1. the Council adopted in June a historic resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity;
  2. the Council is leading cutting edge work on the human rights dimensions of maternal mortality and morbidity;
  3. the Council has also established promising new Special Procedure mandates, including a new Working Group on eliminating discrimination against women in law and practice and a Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association.

These are all major steps forward for the Council.

However, regressive resolutions such as the Russian-led traditional values resolution – which seeks to entrench the notion of traditional values within human rights discourse in order to bolster culturally relativistic arguments against the universality of human rights – remain a threat to the credibility of the body.

The UPR continues as an important process of the Council.  It’s a good question to now ask “What has the first cycle of reviews yielded”?  Well certainly it yielded a wealth of recommendations on a great many human rights issues; many of which are strong recommendations.  Engagement during the first cycle was taken seriously for the most part.  In terms of implementation of UPR outcomes, we see piecemeal efforts across the board.  Looking at a few systematic studies of implementation shows cases where little has moved forward and other cases where just a few recommendations have been concretely implemented.  Moving forward, as their next reviews become imminent, I am certain States will be rushing to show further implementation and good faith.  I would anticipate that implementation plans which should have been done drawn up right after the first review will be prepared in the lead up to the second review.

The second cycle reviews are meant to have implementation of the first cycle UPR outcomes as a focus. However, in every first cycle review, numerous key issues raised by civil society were left out.  The second cycle reviews also need to address the human rights issues that were left out of the first review.  Canada, to its credit, has a policy of participating in every review, and we would urge the government in its preparation for each UPR review to look at the issues that were left out of the first review and to look at how they have developed over the four years with a view to giving them voice in the second review.

In terms of Canada’s participation in the work of the Council, this Committee in its previous investigations under this topic heard from numerous NGO representatives that Canada as a Council Member regularly took positions that were polarizing and oppositional often standing alone in doing so.

As an Observer, Canada has made an effort to focus its efforts on negotiations where it could act as a constructive player.  But it still at times behaves in a way that continues to harm its reputation as an international human rights leader.  A few examples include:

  1. Canada’s opposition to the recognition of the right to safe drinking water and to elevating the status of the independent expert on this topic to a Special Rapporteur;
  2. Canada’s suggestions that the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples needed to present its agenda to the Council for approval, which is a threat to the independence of that mechanism;

Looking ahead, Canada needs to once again reflect and prioritize its diplomatic energies towards discussions where it can play a clearly constructive role.  It can build on examples of where it has done this, including its constructive work on resolutions on issues such as violence against women, sexual orientation and gender identity, maternal mortality, and in opposing the traditional values resolution.

AND it needs to improve many of its practices before it can effectively contribute to the sharing of best practices on the international level.  There are abundant examples of such practices that require improvement:

First, it needs to ensure that domestic and other policies are shaped to reflect best practices and the spirit of these resolutions that I’ve just mentioned.  For instance, Canada co-sponsored the historic resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity and so it should be strengthening legal protections for transgendered persons in Canada.  It co-sponsors the annual maternal mortality resolution, and that work has dealt with the need to address unsafe abortion and provide safe abortion services, and yet CIDA maintains an untenable position with respect to Canadian overseas funding of such services.  These examples do not reflect best practice and do not conform to the spirit of these resolutions on which Canada has worked in a constructive manner.

As the Committee has heard from my NGO colleagues, Canada needs to improve its consultation practices prior to and following human rights reviews.  Canada’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was quite promising; yet, its first report under this treaty is due in April and there has been very little substantive interaction with relevant civil society actors on this report.

Lastly, in its UPR practices with respect to its own review Canada has a long way to go.  It filed no mid-term report; the government has no implementation plan of action that is publicly available; and its previous consultations with civil society and Aboriginal organizations left much to be desired.  In the UPR context, it is Canada that should be looking to other countries as examples.  For example, Brazil’s consultation process for its first review included about 3 sets of in-person consultations and an opportunity for written comments on its draft report. The third consultation process was in fact a hearing of the Brazilian Senate on the Government’s draft report to which civil society actors were invited to make presentations.  This example is much closer to the process we need to see here in Canada.

In conclusion, these types of improvements in Canada’s participation in the work of the Council as well as these types of reforms of domestic policy and practice will help put Canada in a more effective position to promote human rights internationally.

I will end there for now and we would be honoured to answer any questions you might have.

Posted on 2012-02-01
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