Takeaways from Canada’s 4th Universal Periodic Review

Illustration of planets and constellations

In March 2024, Canada made commitments towards improving human rights through the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Action Canada has been engaged throughout this process and attended the 55th session of the UN Human Rights Council to take stock of wins, misses, and what needs to happen next.

The UPR is a mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council where all member states are reviewed on their entire human rights record every four and a half years. It is a key space for civil society to raise urgent human rights concerns in an international forum.  Action Canada participated in Canada’s review through a joint stakeholder submission with partners, focusing on abortion access barriers related to homelessness and migration status. You can access our full submission here

Last November, based on submissions by civil society, human rights organizations, and the Government of Canada, 122 countries submitted 332 recommendations on how Canada should improve the human rights situation in its jurisdiction. These 332 recommendations focus on a broad range of human rights issues, including the ratification of international human rights instruments, the rights of Indigenous Peoples, housing, disability rights, the right to health, gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive rights, conditions of incarceration, climate change, responsible business conduct, and many more.  During the 55th Session of the Human Rights Council, Canada delivered its response to these recommendations.

Recommendations by theme

  • 69 recommendations on human rights and/or international instruments
  • 82 recommendations on the rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • 21 recommendations on education and employment
  • 28 recommendations on poverty, housing, and food security
  • 13 recommendations on women and girls (including sexual and reproductive rights)
  • 25 recommendations on violence against women and children
  • 38 recommendations on children and young people
  • 17 recommendations on people with disabilities
  • 17 recommendations on migrants and refugees
  • 48 recommendations on diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • 2 recommendations on elderly people
  • 5 recommendations on 2SLGBTQQIA+ issues
  • 29 recommendations on public safety and law enforcement
  • 13 recommendations on business and human rights
  • 16 recommendations on climate action
  • 16 recommendations on Canada's foreign policy positions related to the Occupied Palestinian Territories

Of these recommendations, Canada accepted 222, noted 78, and “accepted in part” 32. However, as there is no official mechanism allowing partial acceptance, in effect those recommendations are also noted.

Securing strong recommendations is an advocacy win. Recommendations represent acknowledgement from the global community about the work Canada still has to do towards fulfilling its human rights obligations. When recommendations are made and accepted, they become part of the constellation of human rights commitments for which Canada is accountable.

Here we’ll dive into some of these recommendations and why they’re important, emphasizing that human rights are indivisible, interdependent, and must be advanced collectively. These are our main take-aways from Canada’s UPR:

1. Key wins for sexual and reproductive rights

We celebrate strong recommendations on sexual and reproductive rights issues, including several informed directly by our submission. Through all three previous cycles of the UPR, Canada has only received one recommendation directly targeting sexual and reproductive health. In this cycle, Canada received five recommendations on access to sexual and reproductive health services and accepted four of them.

These are several important recommendations that we were happy to see Canada accept and look forward to implementation:

  • Continue its efforts to improve access to reproductive and sexual health services, with emphasis on facilitating equal access to abortion, across all provinces and territories (Norway) - Accepted
  • Continue efforts to ensure Indigenous Peoples’ access to health services, including sexual and reproductive health services (Finland) - Accepted
  • Ensure substantive access for federal patients seeking abortion care (Iceland) - Accepted

These recommendations are essential because they acknowledge the persisting gaps in access to sexual and reproductive health services. These recommendations signal recognition from other states that guaranteeing substantive and equal access to sexual and reproductive rights services in all provinces and territories is an unmet obligation of the federal government.

Not only do these recommendations send a message to Canada, but they expand on the scope of the government's responsibilities and offer greater precision on ways to meet these responsibilities. 

We also recognize the importance of broader recommendations on sexual and reproductive rights issues in creating an environment where everyone’s rights are upheld. Of note are recommendations from Iceland on combating disinformation through comprehensive sexuality education in and out of schools and addressing homo, bi, and transphobia and the rise of the anti-gender movement in schools. 

Importantly, Canada did not accept recommendations which could have regressive consequences for rights, including several naming the family as the “natural” unit of society, playing towards parental interests at the expense of children’s rights, or expanding punitive measures.

Overall, we are pleased to see strong interest from states to advance sexual and reproductive rights, and clear and vocal commitment from Canada towards this. 

At the adoption of the review, Action Canada delivered a statement on behalf of some of our submission partners. We affirmed in our statement that all rights must be advanced collectively and for all.  You can read and view our full statement here.

Cartoon of a blonde woman giving a statement on Canada's UPR adoption at the 55th Human Rights Council Session
Graphic recording of our joint statement.

2. Increased connections made between rights issues

Sexual and reproductive rights are deeply connected to all other rights, including the rights to health, non-discrimination, education, housing, protection from violence, and to safe and healthy working conditions. We welcome the recommendations on the right to adequate housing among other economic, social and cultural rights and celebrate with our colleagues across movements for this important recognition. These rights are important in and of themselves, and they support the fulfillment of sexual and reproductive rights. We were keeping a close eye on the following recommendations:

  • Adopt a concrete strategy to strengthen access to quality health services and adequate housing, primarily for Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendants, migrants and refugees (Mexico) - Accepted
  • Continue efforts to address deep-set inequalities facing Indigenous Peoples including implementing the recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples and implementing the 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (New Zealand) - Accepted

We are disappointed, however, to see that a number of crucial recommendations in these areas were not accepted, especially on access to health services for undocumented people:

  • Ensure improved access to health services for all, especially persons in vulnerable situations and those with no immigration status (Thailand) - Partially accepted (Noted, in effect)
  • Ensure that all children living in Canada have equal rights and equal access to public health services, regardless of their immigration status (Kyrgyzstan) - Partially accepted (Noted, in effect)

We are deeply dissatisfied that Canada did not accept these recommendations because all people, including undocumented people, are entitled to the rights to health and life. UN bodies have affirmed that where access to sexual and reproductive health is hindered, additional measures are required in order to guarantee these rights and access to information and healthcare. This is explicitly mentioned as applying to“[p]risoners, refugees, stateless persons, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants (emphasis added). Canada’s explanation for noting elements of these recommendations does not respond to its obligations towards the right to health, which must be enjoyed by all people within its jurisdiction. 

We see the connections between migrant justice and sexual and reproductive rights very clearly in our work. In 2023, over half of those who received Action Canada’s financial and logistical support to access services were uninsured, undocumented, or had precarious migration status. When people struggle or are ultimately unable to access services it is almost always related to the denial of other basic rights. We continue to echo migrant rights organizations in demanding Status for All, as permanent immigration status is the first line of defense for the many rights abuses migrants face, including impeded access to health care.

The right to access abortion care cannot be separated from the right to safe and healthy pregnancy and parenthood. As an organization committed to gender justice and bodily autonomy for all, we welcome and highlight recommendations on forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls. The fulfillment of the right to bodily autonomy demands an end to the systems of white supremacy that have fueled this grave violation of human rights. We also welcome recommendations on Canada’s unmet commitment to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Committee Calls to Action.

We support these and many other recommendations because access barriers are rooted in and perpetuated by systemic oppression and the denial of other rights. The recommendations put forward in this cycle of the UPR are notable because they begin to make connections between different rights issues, rather than see them as issue-specific and disconnected from one another.

3. Rebukes to Canada’s reputation as a global leader in human rights 

This cycle of Canada’s UPR was also unique in that many states made recommendations falling outside of the usual focus on domestic human rights. A number of recommendations targeted Canada’s foreign policy and international presence, largely along two fronts. 

Notably, Canada received over a dozen recommendations relating to its responsibilities towards international human rights and humanitarian law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. This is of interest not only because of the scope but because many recommendations highlighted the need for immediate or short-term action to address an unfolding genocide. Given the timeframe of the review process, where recommendations are accepted months after they are made and implemented over several years, this is unusual.  The recommendations included:

  • Call for an immediate ceasefire and the unconditional and unimpeded access of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip (Namibia) - Partially accepted (Noted, in effect)
  • Promote policies to support the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, and step-up monitoring over Canadian corporations to restrict the negative impact of their activities on human rights in areas of occupation (Jordan) - Noted
  • Call for putting an immediate end to grave violations of international law committed in Gaza (Turkey) - Noted

We are disappointed to see Canada note the vast majority of the recommendations related to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. While we expected to see Canada reject those recommendations that were not currently in alignment with official foreign policy, many of the rejections are inconsistent with a human rights based approach. Canada must ensure alignment with gender equality, human rights, respect for international law and the integrity of the UN system.

Further, several countries, in particular those where Canada has large mining stakes, made recommendations on Canada’s role in holding Canadian companies to account in their international operations. These included calls to ensure compliance by Canadian companies with their responsibility to respect human rights (Chile) and to facilitate effective judicial remedies and reparations for those affected by the overseas operations of Canadian businesses (Colombia).

What’s next?

The implementation of these recommendations and compliance with human rights obligations depends on a strong accountability framework. We were pleased to see some recommendations around Canada’s practices in the monitoring and implementation of human rights. These included calls to actively collaborate with civil society in the follow-up to the UPR, to strengthen mechanisms for reporting and implementation, and to make such information accessible to the public. Civil society has been calling for urgent action in this area for years and we were glad to see this get the attention it deserves in the UPR.  

Together with 23  other organizations, we made a statement during Canada’s UPR adoption calling for greater transparency and civil society engagement in Canada. You can read and view our full statement here

Cartoon of a brunette woman giving a statement on behalf of Canadian CSOs on Canada's UPR process
Graphic recording of the statement we delivered on behalf of Canadian civil society organizations.

Our statement outlined some of the first steps Canada must take to improve accountability towards international human rights. We are committed to collectively building a broad coalition of civil society organizations to engage throughout this and future UPR cycles. 

We hope to see Canada publish a mid-term report halfway through this four and a half year cycle. For future cycles of the UPR, we expect that Canada will heed the demands of civil society to build stronger avenues for meaningful engagement and to begin engaging much sooner. 

Over the coming months and years, Canada will be tasked with implementing the recommendations it accepted. Canada will be formally reviewed on this cycle’s recommendations through the next UPR cycle in 2028, but the time to begin implementation is now. Action Canada and our partners will engage relevant government departments and Parliamentarians to urge action on the recommendations.

Effective implementation depends on a strong human rights architecture and robust accountability mechanisms. We will continue to call on the federal government to reimagine its human rights infrastructure towards one that is fit for purpose. Canada must take a whole of government approach in its leadership on the implementation of international human rights and align its actions with the values it champions on the global stage. 

We look forward to engaging with the Government to make this a reality.


Posted on 2024-04-23
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