Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Issue 7 - Evidence - February 6, 2012
OTTAWA, Monday, February 6, 2012
The Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights met this day at 4:00 p.m., to study the development of various issues related to human rights and to review, among other things, the government's mechanisms to ensure that Canada respects its national and international human rights obligations.
Senator Mobina S. B. Jaffer (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Honourable senators, this is the eighth meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights of the 41st Parliament.
The committee has been mandated by the Senate to conduct reviews of issues related to human rights, both in Canada and abroad.
My name is Mobina Jaffer and I welcome you to this hearing.
In 2006, when the United Nations Human Rights Council was first established, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights recognized that this historic event would fundamentally change the United Nations human rights system and the way in which international human rights issues were handled.
In accordance with its mandate to review the machinery of government dealing with Canada's international human rights obligations, the committee has since been engaged in a long-term study of the development of the new council and Canada's role not only as a member of the United Nations but also as a member of the council from 2006 to 2009.
The committee set out to observe how the new council would affect the manner in which Canada implements its human rights obligations and to examine its performance on the council itself. In addition, the committee paid close attention to the ongoing evolution of the council's primary review mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review, which examines United Nations member states and their human rights records.
Over the course of successive parliamentary sessions, the committee has held meetings to discuss these issues with government officials, members of the Canadian mission to the council, human rights advocacy groups, Aboriginal peoples organizations, various countries' ambassadors to the UN and officials from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, among others.
Thanks to these meetings, the committee has gathered all the necessary information to produce four reports. The most recent, from 2010, is entitled: Canada and the United Nations Human Rights Council: Charting a New Course, and was published shortly after Canada participated in its first Universal Periodic Review by the council regarding the human rights situation in this country.
In the report, the committee made a number of recommendations on Canada's future role within the council and the approach we must take to ensure that the council is an effective forum where human rights issues can be dealt with in the United Nations system.
We also made recommendations to encourage the federal government to take proactive measures with respect to its involvement in the next Universal Periodic Review. We have emphasized the urgency, for the Government of Canada, to establish a clear, effective, inclusive and transparent process in preparation for this review.
Our recommendations included the development of a plan outlining how the government intends to implement the recommendations of another United Nations member-state during its first UPR and setting out the procedure to follow in undertaking extensive consultations with civil society, aboriginal organizations, parliamentarians and the Canadian public in general.
The report also includes a number of other recommendations regarding how Canada implements and meets its treaty obligations. This committee would like to see the federal government develop a new policy framework for the signature, ratification and implementation of international human rights treaties that would include such features as regular reporting to Parliament on the progress of treaty negotiations and the plans for implementation. Furthermore, the committee would like to see the mandate and procedures of the Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights reviewed in order to achieve better cooperation, coordination and accountability among Canada's federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for human rights in order to make its proceedings more open and transparent.
We look forward to discussing these recommendations with representatives from key government departments and from civil society organizations that have been invited here today.
Since releasing our report Canada and the United Nations Human Rights Council: Charting a New Course, there have been a number of developments that make this an appropriate time for the committee to return to this topic. For one, Canada is no longer a sitting member of the council and therefore has had to take on a new role in its dealings with the council. Canadians have had an opportunity to examine Canada's performance over the course of its term on the council. Also, in 2011 the council underwent a comprehensive review of its mandate, rules and procedures, and several changes were made that will no doubt have an impact on the council's functioning.
We will ask our witnesses today to share their thoughts on these and other significant recent developments at the council.
The next UPR in which Canada will participate is planned for 2013, which is why we also must act now. This is a good time for the committee to become aware of how the Government of Canada is preparing for this review and how it intends to meet its obligations under international human rights treaties.
The second round of reviews before the council is extremely important to ensure that the UPR is an essential exercise that will result in real change. If Canada is able to develop effective processes and procedures and create authoritative precedents in its preparation for the UPR, and demonstrate that they take other member-states' recommendations seriously, we will then be able to contribute to the advancement of human rights.
We have two panels today, one with representatives from Canadian Heritage, Justice Canada, and Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, and another with representatives from Action Canada for Population and Development, Amnesty International Canada and the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation.
Before introducing the panel, I would like to introduce the senators with us today. We have Senator Nolin, a very senior member of the Senate; Senator Meredith; Senator Plett; and Senator Hubley.
I would like to introduce, from Justice Canada, Jodie van Dieen, Director General and Senior General Counsel, Human Rights Law Section; from Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, David Angell, Director General, International Organizations, Human Rights and Democracy Bureau; and from Canadian Heritage, Martha LaBarge, Director General, Management and Human Rights.
I understand that you have some introductory remarks. We will begin with Ms. van Dieen. Before starting, I want to thank all three of you for the excellent work you do on behalf of Canada around the world.
I particularly want to thank you, Mr. Angell, the great work you did on Resolution 1325. I was just in Sri Lanka and you would be very pleased with how the women there are implementing the great work you did at the UN on Resolution 1325.
We are looking forward to your presentations.
Jodie van Dieen, Director General and Senior General Counsel, Human Rights Law Section, Department of Justice Canada: Good afternoon, Madam Chair and honourable senators. I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the committee today.
First of all, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the committee for its ongoing work and great interest in the area of human rights. In particular, I want to thank the committee for its report entitled Canada and the United Nations Human Rights Council: Charting a New Course.
Your report is a precious source of information for the government, which will take it into account in its work on the Human Rights Council, the Universal Periodic Review and its ongoing enhancement of the implementation of Canada's international human rights obligations. Your reports have provided and will continue to provide important guidance for political debate.
I would know like to address two more specific issues which were raised in the committee report and during the course of Canada's first Universal Periodic Review. The first deals with enhancing the ongoing implementation of Canada's human rights obligations. The second deals with the process for adherence to human rights conventions in Canada and the increased awareness-raising activities in this regard.
In response to what Canada heard during its first Universal Periodic Review, Canada made a commitment to look at enhancing mechanisms related to the implementation of international human rights obligations. My colleague from Canadian Heritage will speak more about some of the processes in place and enhancements to them that strive to meet this commitment.
A complementary commitment Canada made was to increase awareness of international human rights treaties throughout the federal public service. This commitment recognizes that awareness and understanding of Canada's human rights obligations are fundamental to their effective implementation. While follow-up to this commitment is ongoing, I would like to tell you about some significant work that has already been accomplished.
Since 2009, the federal government has held four very successful government-wide conferences that bring together officials from many different departments to promote awareness and deepen their understanding of how Canada's international human rights commitments impact their work. In November 2009, a full-day conference was held on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In March 2011 and again this past January, federal officials attended day-long conferences on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Canada recently ratified. In December 2011, on the thirtieth anniversary of Canada's ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, federal officials came together with representatives from women's organizations for a half-day conference to discuss and raise awareness of the obligations under that convention.
The Department of Justice Canada has been an active participant in these conferences. We are also working on other initiatives to increase awareness. The department offers training on international human rights law on a regular basis to Justice Canada lawyers as part of their continuing legal education. The Department of Justice Canada has developed and delivers courses on a rotating basis on the human rights treaties to which Canada is a party, including a general survey course on Canada's international human rights obligations. We have also developed specialized courses on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and on economic, social and cultural rights. This training helps to build the capacity of departmental lawyers to advise officials across government on Canada's treaty obligations.
Since Canada's Universal Periodic Review, we have extended our efforts by adapting and delivering existing international courses directly to officials in other departments who are involved in policy development work. For example, counsel have provided courses on economic, social and cultural rights and on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities tailored to the work of officials in Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Although it is not a binding treaty, departmental lawyers have also been leading seminars to raise awareness of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples following Canada's endorsement of that instrument in November 2010.
Following its UPR, Canada committed to improving the provision of information to Canadians regarding the adherence to human rights conventions processes and on treaties being reviewed for possible participation. Thus, Canada has recognized there is room for improvement in raising awareness of the process.
The government endeavored to make progress on this commitment in the lead-up to Canada's ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which took place in March 2010. The Canadian disability community was widely consulted, and information on the treaty adherence process was shared prior to ratification; and this included over the Internet. Information about the human rights treaty adherence process and treaties currently under consideration for possible adherence has been posted on the Department of Justice Canada's Internet site. We will continue to look at other ways to share this information with the public, including in our discussions with civil society and other stakeholders.
Madame Chair, I will now turn to my colleague from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, who would like to speak to you about Canada and the UN Human Rights Council.
David Angell, Director General, International Organizations, Human Rights and Democracy Bureau, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada: Thank you, madam chairman and honourable senators, for the opportunity to address this committee and for your kind introductory words. I join my colleague in thanking the committee for its reports.
From the beginning of Canada's engagement in the UN Human Rights Council as a founding member in 2006, as you said, Madame Chair, and as an observer state since 2009, the Government of Canada has been able to work within this United Nations body to advance our human rights priorities and has contributed to the council's growing institutional capability to fulfill its mandate.
Over recent years, the council has achieved some notable gains. These include strengthened monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in Iran. They include new special procedures to address priority issues that are especially important in light of the Arab Spring, such as freedom of peaceful assembly and association, discrimination against women in law and practice, and truth, reconciliation, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence. They include as well the creation of a path forward on sexual orientation that we hope will lead to progress on decriminalization and to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. They include as well progress on Internet freedom and on freedom of religion and more effective responses in real time to urgent human rights situations, such as in Côte d'Ivoire, Libya and Syria.
However, Canada recognizes that the UN Human Rights Council has not always effectively addressed urgent situations of human rights violations. The unbalanced focus on the situation in the West Bank in Gaza and the continued politicization and bloc voting that we sometimes see at the council has at times stymied strong, concerted and principled actions. However, we believe that we are witnessing a maturation of the body, with a growing capacity to fulfill its mandate and to respond to new challenges. This is welcome, but this improvement cannot be taken for granted and should not mask the council's continued institutional weaknesses. Sustained effort is critical if the progress that I spoke to a moment ago is to be sustained.
Canada has played a role in enhancing the capacity of the council by strengthening ties with our traditional allies, and by nurturing relationships with moderate states from all regions of the world to garner support for our human rights priorities and initiatives. For example, each year, Canada chairs the negotiations at council on the resolution to eliminate violence against women. The Canadian strategy is to build consensus among a large and diverse group of states for the effective promotion and protection of the human rights of women and girls. This approach has led to this resolution being one of the most substantive in the council.
In 2011, over 84 states from all regions of the world co-sponsored this consensus resolution. The effective role that Canada has played in the council's response to the abuses committed in Syria is another example of the success of this approach. Canada led a cross-regional statement on the human rights situation in Syria at the council's 17th session in June 2011, and played a key role in establishing a special session on Syria last December, which resulted in a strong resolution that received broad support from a majority of members.
Madam Chair, the Government of Canada had an opportunity to assess how the Human Rights Council is fulfilling its purpose as the main United Nations body for the promotion and protection of human rights during the council's 5-year review process last year.
Canada had three overarching priorities in its very active engagement in the council's review. They were, first, to improve the council's ability to promptly address urgent human rights situations wherever they occur; second, to strengthen the special procedures and improve cooperation by states with these important mechanisms; and third, to ensure follow-up and implementation of states' human rights obligations and commitments. Canada adopted a principled yet pragmatic approach during the review process, making proposals that would, in our view, move the council closer to these identified goals.
As too few of even the most modest proposals that Canada and like-minded partners put forward were taken on board, Canada was disappointed with the outcome of the council's review process. However, we were heartened by the fact that no ground was lost on important issues. There was real risk that backsliding would happen, so vigilance remains crucial to protect these gains.
The Human Rights Council is also a forum for addressing religious freedom. A key responsibility of the HRC special procedures mandate-holder on freedom of religion or belief is to identify obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion and to make recommendations to overcome them. Two resolutions on the issue of religion and human rights are presented annually at the council. Considerable progress was made in 2011 when a resolution on defamation of religion was transformed into a much more constructive resolution on discrimination based on religion. Remarkably, this resolution — one that, each year, has been the subject of some acrimonious exchange — was adopted by consensus.
The Human Rights Council is a forum through which Canada's soon to be launched office of religious freedom can advance Canada's priorities on this important issue, including through Universal Periodic Reviews.
In addition, the selection process for the council's Special Procedures was strengthened as a result of the review process. Transparency has been enriched by a new application and interview process. These mechanisms are an important aspect of an effective international human rights system. To ensure that these mechanisms remain credible and effective, Canada routinely advocates for competence-based appointments.
The Universal Periodic Review process through which the human rights record of all UN members is examined is also an important tool of accountability. During the first four-year cycle of the UPR, Canada showed its commitment to the principle of universality, by intervening and making recommendations on all 191 country UPRs apart from our own.
Canada hosted a Universal Periodic Review mid-term side-event in June 2011 for countries whose UPR occurred alongside Canada's three years ago. This event generated a constructive dialogue and positive responses from participating states and NGOs.
To wrap up, in addition to the UN Human Rights Council and the human rights bodies of the Organization of American States, Canada uses regional and multilateral bodies such as the Commonwealth, la Francophonie, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the EU as platforms to promote its human rights priorities. It does this either as a member state or, in the case of the EU, by working closely with member states. It promotes priorities such as freedom of religion, the rights of minorities and women's human rights.
The Government of Canada believes that it is important to ensure an open and transparent process for domestic treaty adoption and mechanisms flexible enough to allow the Canadian government to effectively represent Canadian views and interests at the international level. The government, therefore, consults across federal departments and with provincial, territorial and Aboriginal governments when the subject matter of the treaty falls within their jurisdictional authority. Thank you.
Martha LaBarge, Director General, Management and Human Rights, Canadian Heritage: Madame Chair and honourable senators, I am also pleased to be here today to speak more specifically about Canada's Universal Periodic Review, UPR.
Canada's UPR was an important opportunity for us to collectively examine our human rights record and to benefit from the views and perspectives of other states. The issues that were raised by other countries touched many governments and many departments and we have continued to work in collaboration and to share information across departments and across governments regarding the recommendations that Canada accepted.
One of the important and lasting consequences of Canada's first UPR has been the ongoing horizontal dialogue on the issues that were raised. Since then we have established a permanent interdepartmental committee of officials from all relevant federal departments that meets once a month to discuss and track the progress of the accepted recommendations and Canada's commitments.
However, the recommendations and commitments, in many cases, also involve provincial and territorial governments. Consequently, Canada's UPR is now a standing item on the agenda of the Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights, CCOHR, where provincial and territorial officials provide regular updates on relevant initiatives undertaken by their respective governments.
We have continued to make progress on the additional commitments that Canada made in its response to the UPR recommendations. In our response, Canada committed to tabling the outcome of its first UPR in Parliament. The government tabled the documents in both the House and the Senate in May 2010. Canada also committed to increasing awareness of international human rights treaties. As my colleague from Justice has indicated, this is an ongoing initiative and a lot of work has already been accomplished, both in the area of training and information-sharing.
In addition to the training that is being offered by the Department of Justice, our department has revised and enhanced our training modules on the UN reporting and review processes. This training elaborates on the obligation to report and provides practical advice for officials contributing to Canada's reports.
I would also note that the CCOHR has also been looking at its own operations in light of some of the UPR recommendations and commitments and is continuing to explore opportunities to share information publicly on consideration of UN recommendations.
A few significant changes have occurred since the last UPR. The CCOHR membership list is now being shared with organizations to provide a point of contact in the provinces and territories for questions related to international human rights obligations.
CCOHR has also decided to meet regularly with representatives from civil society and Aboriginal organizations at its own in-person meetings. Two meetings have already been held, one in Edmonton last May and one this past November in Ottawa. The meetings are proving to be a useful mechanism to hear the views of non-governmental organizations, NGOs, which are informing our intergovernmental discussions.
Finally, in order to increase communication, the committee will be publicly sharing information on consideration of recommendations received under the UPR and from treaty bodies at the midpoint between the time of a review and the subsequent report to the UN.
We are now focusing on Canada's second appearance before the UPR Working Group which will take place in May 2013. We have begun discussions with our federal, provincial and territorial colleagues in preparation for Canada's next UPR report, to be submitted to the UN in February 2013. The report will focus primarily on initiatives that address the accepted recommendations and voluntary commitments made by Canada.
In the fall of 2010, we invited numerous civil society and Aboriginal organizations to meetings in six regions across the country, including the National Capital Region, to let them know of the initiatives then being undertaken with respect to Canada's UPR commitments. We also wanted to hear their views on a process moving forward for ongoing consultations with civil society and Aboriginal organizations.
What we heard, first and foremost, was that they wanted a broad and inclusive process focusing on reporting and the recommendations we receive from the United Nations.
As a result, and as part of our consultation strategy, we now undertake a broad consultation on a draft outline of the reports that Canada must submit to the United Nations. The draft outline of the report is shared with civil society and Aboriginal organizations, which are invited to identify any additional key questions and to help prioritize the issues that could be addressed in Canada's report. In addition, in January we forwarded the draft overview to over 200 civil society and Aboriginal organizations, seeking their input on the priority issues that could be included in the Universal Periodic Review report.
The fact that Canada's report will be limited under UN guidelines to 20 pages means that decisions will be required on what issues are addressed in the report, and the views of civil society and Aboriginal organizations will help inform those decisions. We will also be consulting organizations on the recommendations we receive in 2013 to inform the drafting of Canada's response, in which we will indicate which recommendations Canada accepts.
The two-step process that I have elaborated for the Universal Period Review complemented by the meetings held with the Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights is the same process that we will be using for Canada's reports under the treaties that we are party to.
Many of the processes that I have mentioned are ongoing, and we will continue to make adjustments and enhancements as we move forward. We would be most appreciative of your views on the process that I have described and would be pleased to answer any questions you may have. Thank you.
The Chair: Thank you to all three of you for bringing us up to date with what our government has been doing around the field of human rights.
One thing that was very disappointing in the last process was the consultation with civil society. We cannot completely blame the departments. We understand there was prorogation and elections so the process was not as consultative as we would have liked.
One of the reasons we are holding this meeting now is because we are anxious to hear from you first and then from the civil society if this time around the process is more inclusive.
Ms. LaBarge, we have heard that you have started consultations with the civil society, and we would like to hear from you whether the consultations are better and more inclusive than they were last time.
Ms. LaBarge: Are the consultations better? We certainly hope so. We heard and also received the recommendations as a result of the UPR process and the recommendations that your committee has made. We have also heard what the civil society has mentioned to us. As you say, we know why they were not pleased last time. There were some timing issues, et cetera. Moving forward, we have consulted with civil society. We have changed the processes inside the CCOHR to ensure that there is regional and local representation from civil society and Aboriginal organizations, not just the headquarter organizations.
We feel at this point that we have expanded that. The consultation process, as you well know, goes beyond civil society. We have included or at least we are being much more inclusive or active with respect to the sorts of consultations involving provincial and territorial organizations.
In answer to your first question, do we feel the consultations are better? Yes. Whom have we consulted? We feel they are better because we have worked in consultation with the organizations to determine who should be consulted. We are working using the pre-existing networks within the organization as well. In our invitation, while we may not necessarily get it right the first time, if there are any organizations we have unfortunately missed, we have asked that they be included, and we will include them.
The Chair: Before going to the committee members, I have another question. You touched on the Aboriginal communities. Almost half the recommendations from the UPR process were on issues facing Aboriginal people, and you have said to us that you are looking beyond national organizations. This committee would be interested to know exactly what you are doing to include Aboriginal people in these consultations.
Ms. LaBarge: With the help of Indian and Northern Affairs, with their assistance when we move ahead on any consultation dealing specifically with a specific report, they are in a position to know with whom they consult, and they provide us with a list of Aboriginal organizations that are important to consult on a variety of issues. So we use them as really the go-to person. They know who their clients are.
Senator Meredith: Thank you so much for your presentations. I appreciate the work that you do both here in Canada and around the globe.
One of the questions the chair just asked with respect to the Aboriginal community I was about to ask. What are some of the issues that are being brought forth, Ms. LaBarge? I know you are being fired at here, but what are some of the issues the Aboriginal communities are bringing forward that are being addressed or they feel are being addressed?
Ms. LaBarge: Those are issues beyond my purview. The department would be in a better position to address those specific issues. In the role and mandate that I have in the Department of Canadian Heritage, I can address the recommendations and issues being raised in the context of process, reporting, and the reviews, but as to the specific recommendations or any of these things dealing with any other department, the lead policy departments are in a much better position to deal with that.
Senator Meredith: Speaking specifically of the issues being raised, what are some of the issues around human rights that are being brought forth? That was sort of my question.
Ms. LaBarge: Again, as my colleagues have some comments on this, the specific recommendations with respect to Aboriginal issues are many and are better in the purview of a representative from that department.
Senator Meredith: Mr. Angell, you talked about the office of religious freedom. In light of Canada establishing this office, what has been the response from the international community with respect to us setting up this office to promote religious freedom around the globe?
Mr. Angell: The responses that have come to our attention have been extremely favourable. This is an issue that a number of governments are grappling with. It has been part of the human rights discussion for many years. It is one of the human rights that are addressed in the universal declaration, but there is a sense on the part of a number of governments that amongst that panoply of fundamental human rights, the issue of religious freedom has not received adequate attention.
The U.S. set up an office a number of years ago. This would be the second such office, but a number of governments are looking at how they can improve their own toolkits to address this issue more directly.
The Special Rapporteur in Geneva on freedom of religion or belief has in a number of reports over the years underscored the importance of the issue and the growing tendency for the right to be abrogated, and we have seen that in a number of countries. The response is that the initiative is timely, and it is clear that we will have a growing number of like-minded partners with whom to work in taking our work on religious freedom forward.
Senator Meredith: Thank you.
Senator Hubley: Thank you and welcome to you all today.
My questions arise out of the recommendations, the first one being Recommendation 17. Beyond recent updates to the Canadian Heritage website, has the Government of Canada considered the committee's Recommendation 17 to create a central public database on the Internet to inform Canadians about the status of Canada's ascension to or ratification of international treaties, about any public consultations that will be held in this respect and about any programs designed to meet Canada's human rights treaty obligations?
Ms. van Dieen: If I may, my colleague from the Department of Canadian Heritage has described some of the work under way to enhance transparency following up on the Universal Periodic Review. As you mentioned, the Department of Canadian Heritage has a comprehensive Internet site on human rights that is accessible to the public with links to treaties that Canada has ratified and its periodic reports to UN treaty bodies.
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Department of Justice has recently made additions to its Internet site to include information about the international human rights treaties to which Canada is a party, the roles and responsibilities of the government in relation to treaty adherence, the process for treaty adherence in Canada, and the international treaties currently under consideration by Canada for possible adherence.
While this is two government departments having Internet sites with information, we do make connections between our respective sites to enhance the accessibility of this information to the Canadian public.
Senator Hubley: My second question is on Recommendation 7. Has the Government of Canada taken any steps toward creating an office of the Canadian ambassador for human rights, who would, among other things, serve as Canada's permanent representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council and would work to promote human rights internationally on Canada's behalf?
Mr. Angell: Both the Canadian permanent representative to the UN in New York and the Canadian permanent representative to the UN in Geneva have human rights as important components of their packages. It is especially true with regard to the ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs announced publicly that the office of religious freedom, to which reference was made a moment ago, will be headed at the level of ambassador, so there will be an ambassador focusing on this particular human right working closely with our ambassadors in New York and Geneva, for whom human rights are key aspects of their work.
Senator Nolin: Mr. Angell, in light of last year's events, I am concerned by your testimony when you state that Canada's objectives were to improve the speed with which the international community reacts to events that require the protection of human rights.
My colleagues have just raised the issue of freedom of religion. I cannot help but be concerned by what is going on in Egypt with the Coptic minority. I would like to know if, from your perspective, the international community is in a position to appreciate the Canadian government's arguments in defending the implementation of a mechanism intended to improve the reaction time of the international community.
I am under the impression that last year's events proved that the international community is paralyzed and that it has difficulty taking action when faced with attacks on human rights. In support of that, I feel that unfortunately, the Egyptian Coptic minority is clearly under the radar. I hope that the Office of Religious Freedom that Canada is in the process of setting up will ensure that we focus on defending minority rights.
Mr. Angell: Madam Chair, when I said that progress had been made in the council's reaction time to certain events, I did not mean that 100 per cent of the time, the council responds to all priorities. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
What I meant was, if we take the example of the situation in Libya or Syria, the council's reaction was commensurate with the events. Special sessions were held very quickly, resolutions were adopted, and investigative committees and other mechanisms were created.
As concerns Egypt, Madam Chair, the scope and vulnerability of the Coptic minority community was the subject of several statements made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who takes this situation very seriously. Those are among the priorities of our ambassador in Cairo. We understand how vulnerable that population is.
In the Speech from the Throne and in statements that were made concerning the creation of the Office of Religious Freedom, the point is made that this issue of religious freedom is understood not only in the context of human rights, but also in the context of the creation of democratic societies. Religious freedom is a key element in the building of democratic societies.
As concerns Egypt and the efforts that are currently being made to establish democracy, it is clear that this aspect of religious freedom must be urgently addressed.
I cannot comment on the priorities of this office, because it does not yet exist, although it will be created soon. But given the importance attached by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to the issue of the Coptic minority in Egypt, it would not be surprising if this situation was a priority for that office.
Senator Nolin: Thank you, sir, for your answer. When raising the importance of the democratic aspect of the development of a nation, I cannot help but think of the consequences of democracy. If democracy means that the law of the majority will win out over the defence of minority rights, well then I have a problem. That is why human rights must be protected by the Constitution; otherwise we are stuck and we cannot make progress. Do you understand my concern? I have no problem with the respect of the democratic development of a nation, provided that human rights are immune from the will of the majority and that they are protected. Do you not agree with me?
Mr. Angell: I agree with you wholeheartedly. It is in this spirit that religious freedom is one of the fundamental rights that is included in the universal declaration.
Senator Ataullahjan: I have a couple of questions regarding human rights abuses. Are we following what is happening in Libya? Last week we heard that a former ambassador died within 24 hours of being in custody. I would like to hear something from you regarding that.
Also, they have started talking about abuses with the prisoners. Is that being monitored?
Mr. Angell: The Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a very strong statement when those abuses came to light, the content of which was unusually strong in diplomatic terms. Yes, the situation is being followed closely.
I am not the subject expert. We are organized so that our geographic bureaus have the lead in looking at country-specific situations, but I can provide assurance that the situation is being looked at very closely.
Senator Ataullahjan: In your opinion, is the Government of Canada doing its utmost to ensure that all members of civil society are engaged in the UPR process? Are your monitoring processes transparent and open to public scrutiny?
Ms. LaBarge: A little bit earlier, we were talking about the consultation process and how we are trying to engage as much as possible. We have a number of new processes and changes that we have made in order to ensure that there is better consultation with respect to civil society and Aboriginal organizations.
We held meetings in the fall of 2010 to determine a process that would be a move forward.
As a result of that, several themes were raised, including a theme of accountability and transparency. In an effort to address that, the Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights has agreed to share information with organizations on recommendations between the review and the subsequent report process with respect to inclusiveness and accessibility.
This includes broad consultations, local communities and regional organizations, and the CCOHR is again meeting with civil society and Aboriginal organizations at their biannual meetings — one in Ottawa and another six months later in a provincial or territorial capital — which provides us with the opportunity to meet with local and regional representatives.
The consultations we have in Ottawa always include a myriad of federal officials who are conversant on their specific subject matter and can address many issues raised in the UPR.
Again, we are also using the NGO networks to identify relevant organizations. That is essentially where we have moved to since the last UPR.
The Chair: I have to say that we were concerned at the consultations last time. It is now February and your presentation is in May, and we will be hearing from civil society. I encourage you to stay and hear from them. We are hearing that the consultations are not as far along as they should be.
The reason the three departments have been invited — Justice, Foreign Affairs and Heritage — is that on the government site it says that you are the core departments on this issue on UPR. You are supposed to coordinate, engage and draft responses. The chart sets out that all departments — including Aboriginal Affairs — are reporting to the interdepartmental committee.
I have a little concern with your response to Senator Meredith. In your written and oral submissions in the first UPR, the Government of Canada stated that it had accepted that there existed inequalities in our society between Aboriginal people and other Canadians. It sets out things — like in your report — the recipients of social assistance, unemployed, incarcerated, to live in poverty, to face increased health risks and to commit suicide. You further go on to say that Aboriginal women are of significant concern.
The Government of Canada expressed its commitment to addressing these issues and said it is focusing on economic development, education, citizen empowerment, protection of the vulnerable and so on. Given that was your presentation at the last UPR, and the Government of Canada has admitted that there is work to be done, what plan is in place to ensure these improvements are being made for the second process?
Ms. LaBarge: For the second process, to ensure there is better engagement and addressing, we have established an interdepartmental committee. While Justice Canada, Foreign Affairs, and Canadian Heritage are the key or core departments in relation to the periodic review, anything coming out of the UPR review must be addressed by the subject matter experts and the relevant departments.
In the outline of the report of the next UPR that we sent to civil society, we are essentially responding to what came out of first UPR. Given that there are over 60 recommendations, we are doing it thematically. The themes we have outlined include enhancing the implementation of international human rights obligations, Aboriginal peoples, poverty and homelessness, addressing inequality, and women and violence against women and children.
These core departments are working weekly and we are certainly following up on all the recommendations in the UPR. That is the best way for the federal family to do that.
With respect to provinces and territories, that is done through the auspices or the vehicle of the CCOHR, where many of these issues are of provincial and territorial jurisdiction. They are in a position where we discuss with them, at the coordinating committee, where we are and how we will address these in conjunction with the Department of Justice, Foreign Affairs, and very often other departments, depending on the agenda. Mostly there is a good presentation from other departments. There is that kind of coordination and discussion at that level. You have a grouping to respond to — in 20 pages — the first UPR response, and then you have the consultation process that we have developed. It will evolve, I am sure. We also have the provincial and territorial aspect of. and it that is how we are addressing it.
The Chair: Thank you, Ms. LaBarge. I was not asking about what processes you have in place for consultation. I am asking specifically — and I am willing to wait for an answer from you in writing because it is a large question — that Canada admitted we have certain challenges that we have not met with Aboriginal people. I am asking you what plans are in place to ensure that there are improvements, so that in 2013 when we go to another presentation, the same issues are not brought up.
May I ask that you give us an answer in writing, especially with the Aboriginal section? If I understand, there were 68 recommendations, and of those, 39 were accepted by Canada. It would be useful for our committee to know what plans you have in place for the 39 that Canada accepted. Can you give our committee, in writing, exactly what plans you have on the recommendations that were made and what is in place? I understand that it is hard for you to give that to us today, but we would appreciate that in writing.
Ms. LaBarge: I will take that back and discuss it for consideration with my colleague at Aboriginal Affairs as they are the subject matter expert on this.
The Chair: You will give us something in writing about what is happening with the 39 recommendations?
Ms. LaBarge: I will discuss it with my colleagues. They will be responsible for addressing exactly what the implementation or plan is with respect to that.
The Chair: I am at loss as to what you mean by "colleagues." I thought you three were the core departments.
Ms. LaBarge: It is a shared responsibility, and the shared responsibility is one that Justice Canada has for implementation and interpretation of human rights law. Foreign Affairs is responsible for providing any international take on it. The Canadian Heritage mandate is facilitation coordination. We are not subject matter experts on the recommendations, per se.
The Chair: I respect and understand that. However, from the chart that you have provided on the website, it specifically shows that all the departments report to your committee.
Of the 39 recommendations, what is in place? I will leave that request to you because you three are coordinating it. We would appreciate knowing where those recommendations are, and what is happening with those 39 recommendations.
Another concern that has been raised many times to our committee is that the Canadian Heritage website contains only basic information regarding Canada's participation. Not much information is available regarding opportunities for the public to engage in consultation with the federal government, nor is there much information regarding Canada's participation in the UPR of the other countries. You have said you made some efforts in engaging civil society, but if I may respectfully say, the website needs work so that civil society can engage. There is no place for people to make submissions on the UPR process, and we have had a number of complaints on how to engage with the core committees. I will leave that in your capable hands.
Senator Meredith: Going back to Ms. LaBarge, you indicated to us that the first process had some issues, and there were some valuable lessons learned.
Further to the senator's question with respect to the 39 recommendations, has Canada's reputation in the international community been positively or negatively affected by the HRC's report and the initial UPR?
Mr. Angell: We take the UPR process very seriously. We ask probing questions of other governments, and we expect probing questions to be asked of us. From our perspective, criticism directed to us and to any responsible government simply enhances the credibility of the process. We are not shy of receiving criticism from other governments; it speaks to the integrity of the UPR.
Senator Meredith: Have we been criticized positively or negatively for what we are doing to move the process forward and move Canada forward on these issues? What has the response been from the international community?
Mr. Angell: I do not have the complete list of questions before us, but the issues that were raised were raised constructively. Of course, as is the case with any country undergoing the UPR, countries are looking to see how the country responds over time. Canada was not subject to any particularly serious criticism. We received constructive comments from countries and we are responding, but we did not view the criticism of Canada as being harsh in any way. We found it very constructive.
Senator Meredith: You said you are responding. What exactly are you responding to?
Mr. Angell: We are responding to the body of comments through the process that is led by Canadian Heritage. There were comments on the whole panoply of human rights issues. I cannot respond specifically to any particular criticism that was raised with regard to Canada, but we take the criticisms seriously.
For example, Canada was encouraged to support a particular UN declaration, and we have since done so. If you look through the list of recommendations you will see that there is positive action against a substantial number of them.
Senator Meredith: We have seen the HRC in its operations. In your opinion, is the body functioning effectively? You mentioned in your presentation, Mr. Angell, that bloc politics is happening. Can you elaborate on what processes are being put in place so that protection of human rights is being promoted by this council and that the members not promoting their own agendas?
Mr. Angell: The council is a work in progress. As I said in my statement, we have seen some important successes in recent years, including instances where the council has mobilized quickly where there have been egregious human rights violations, such as in Libya and Syria. Canada is working with like-minded partners to make the mechanisms as strong and credible as they can be.
For example, through the UPR itself we have worked with a number of governments to try to learn lessons from the first review and to improve the second review. We are strong advocates of the special procedures, including the arrangements that were put in place following the first UPR to make the selection process more focused on competencies.
The composition is the composition, but we are trying to work with like-minded countries to ensure that the council meets quickly and effectively and that the machinery available to the council is as robust as possible. As I mentioned in my initial remarks, we were disappointed by the outcome of the review process. However, having said that, we are satisfied that there is a ratchet effect, and year by year the council is getting a little stronger. It is, however, still a work in progress.
Senator Meredith: Senator Nolin mentioned the office of religious freedom, and we mentioned Coptic Christians. I met Shahbaz Bhatti last February, and in March he was assassinated. What was the response of the council to that assassination with regard to putting pressure on Pakistan to deal with this issue? You said that the council is responding quickly to these situations. We know of Libya and the Coptic Christians in Egypt. I was in Baghdad in December where churches were bombed.
Specifically, how is the council responding quickly to these situations around the globe?
Mr. Angell: The council's response is not uniformly positive. We have had real successes with the quick mobilization of special sessions with regard to Libya and Syria, but I do not recall the details of the council's response to the assassination of Mr. Bhatti. The Government of Canada responded quite robustly.
Senator Meredith: I understand that the Department of Foreign Affairs made a strong statement, but does this body send members to these countries to deal with their leadership when these situations arise?
Mr. Angell: We will need to follow up with a detailed response, if we may; I do not have that information on hand.
Senator Meredith: Can anyone else comment on that?
The Chair: Thank you to the panel. We very much appreciate your being with us today. As you heard, we are preoccupied with the consultation process. We would like to have a better one. You will no doubt be hearing from us again about that. We look forward to hearing from you about the improvements you have put into place on the 39 recommendations that you have accepted. We look forward to working with you in the future.
At this time, I would also like to recognize former Senator Prud'homme, who has joined us today.
I am happy to welcome Mr. Alex Neve, from Amnesty International; Ms. Leilani Farha, from the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation; and Mr. Sandeep Prasad, from Action Canada for Population and Development. As you have heard from our questioning while you sat in this room, our biggest concern at this time is the consultation of civil society during the second Universal Periodic Review process. As we know, during the first UPR process, many concerns were expressed about consultations with civil society. We would be appreciative of hearing what you know about any improvements that have been made by the Government of Canada on the 39 recommendations that it has accepted.
I understand we will start with you, Ms. Farha.
Leilani Farha, Executive Director, Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation: Good afternoon, Madam Chair and honourable senators; thank you for inviting me here today. I am very pleased to see that this committee remains concerned with the Universal Periodic Review of Canada and Canada's performance at the Human Rights Council. My comments this evening will focus on Canada's performance since its first UPR and in the lead-up to the second UPR scheduled for May 2013. I will be looking specifically at some of those recommendations that keep being referred to as well as at the broader issue of consultations. My colleague Mr. Neve will discuss implementation of human rights more broadly within the Canadian legal and political landscape. Mr. Prasad will comment on the working of the Human Rights Council.
The last time I appeared before this committee was on this same topic in March 2009. Canada had just been reviewed by the Human Rights Council but had not yet responded to the recommendations offered by its peers. At that time, I critiqued Canada's performance with respect to consultation, and I will follow up on that later in my presentation tonight.
Since 2009, Canada has responded to the recommendations offered by its peers and is in the implementation phase of the process. The implementation or lack thereof of the recommendations will form the basis of Canada's next review in 2013. During this phase, a number of NGOs and Aboriginal organizations across the country have been working on an assessment of the government's performance with respect to every recommendation made to it under the first UPR. Time does not permit me to provide you with an exhaustive overview of our assessment, though once it is complete we will be sure to forward it to this committee. However, I can say that if Canada were to receive a report card on its post-UPR performance, by our measure it would receive failing grades on two interrelated fronts in terms of both implementation of specific recommendations and its constructive interactions with civil society.
I will begin with three examples from different thematic areas of Canada's failure to adequately implement specific UPR recommendations. I will look at disability, Aboriginal rights, and homelessness and poverty.
NGOs in Canada were very pleased that in keeping with one of the UPR recommendations, Canada ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I imagine this will be trotted out as an example of successful implementation of one of the UPR recommendations; and it is, but only in part. That is because, although Canada ratified the CRPD, it failed to ratify the optional protocol to the CRPD — a position that is very much out of step with other countries around the world that have ratified the CRPD. It is the optional protocol that really breathes life into the convention because it is the mechanism through which the rights in the convention can be claimed by individuals. The ratification of the optional protocol to the CRPD would have been an explicit recognition by the Government of Canada that it considers that those rights can be claimed; but by not ratifying the optional protocol, the opposite message is sent.
Canada accepted a number of recommendations aimed at addressing the inequalities experienced by Aboriginal peoples in social and economic realms and protecting the rights of Aboriginal women and children in particular. Again, we see that when it comes to the implementation of these recommendations, Canada has actively pursued obstructionist positions. Take, for example, the government's response to a landmark Aboriginal children's rights case before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. This case challenges as discriminatory the unequal provision of funding for child protection programs and services to First Nations children living on-reserve. Despite the fact that the government has admitted that the inadequate funding for these services has resulted in the disproportionate number of Aboriginal children being taken into care, the government strongly opposed the tribunal holding hearings into the matter at all. Basically, the government is arguing that the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is not an appropriate mechanism to scrutinize government funding decisions for the provision of services to First Nations. The broader implication of the government's position is that First Nations people in Canada will be denied access to the protection of the Canadian Human Rights Act on some of the most important aspects of government decision making and action. Here, too, is the message: You may have rights, but you cannot claim them or seek remedy for violations of your rights, at least not here.
With respect to addressing poverty and homelessness in the broader population, Canada accepted the recommendation that it intensify its efforts to better ensure the right to adequate housing, especially for vulnerable groups. Bill C-304, a private member's bill, which reached third reading last spring, presented the government with an opportunity to implement this recommendation.
Bill C-304 had widespread support. It was agreed to by three opposition parties, as well as by municipalities, Aboriginal organizations and civil society organizations across Canada. The implementation of the provisions contained in the bill would have cost the government next to nothing but would have created the initial apparatus to ensure the implementation of the right to adequate housing in this country. Instead of embracing this creative, model piece of legislation that could have led to the enhancement of housing rights for the most marginalized people in this country, Conservative members of Parliament opposed it in committee and on the floor of the House of Commons. Once more, they reiterated the message: You may have rights, but do not try to have them expressed through legislation.
I would like to pause here to reflect on Canada's performance in terms of implementing these specific recommendations coming out of the UPR. As these examples show, what is so disturbing about Canada's performance is not that the government has been sitting idly by doing nothing, although that may be the case in some situations. What is so disturbing, at least based on these three examples, are the consistent and active steps it has taken to curb the avenues and mechanisms for the implementation of rights. International human rights mechanisms like an optional protocol? Forget it. Domestic human rights mechanisms like the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal? Forget it. Legislation like Bill C-304? Forget it.
In my opinion, this demonstrates the government's very narrow interest in ensuring the enjoyment of human rights by the most marginalized groups, be they rights protections recommended by the Human Rights Council or by other bodies. After all, human rights are illusory if they cannot be claimed and if remedies for violations are unavailable.
Given the government's position, which denies effective means for rights claiming, it is perhaps not surprising, then, that the government has failed, on the whole, to meaningfully or seriously engage with civil society throughout the UPR process. The government accepted a recommendation to have regular and inclusive consultations with civil society as an integral part of the follow-up to the UPR and in its preparation of its next report.
In my last submission to you, I highlighted the ways in which they failed to properly consult civil society prior to the review. Little has changed since then. There was a meeting of national NGOs and Aboriginal organizations after the UPR to discuss which recommendations should be accepted or rejected. The meeting was very interactive, and many of the government officials who attended were clearly interested in the issues being raised. However, it was not clear that the session genuinely informed the government's response to the UPR.
Ms. LaBarge detailed the various meetings that have been held since that time. I do not think any of us takes issue that those meetings happened. They did happen, but I would add to her description of those meetings that they can be characterized in this way: I think each of them lacked expected outcomes and follow-up. There was a lack of resources to ensure national participation of civil society, including, particularly, marginalized groups, and a lack of attendance by senior bureaucrats and government officials with decision-making powers.
We were recently sent, by email, an outline of Canada's next report to the Human Rights Council, and we have been told that it is unlikely that any in-person consultations will take place to inform the drafting of the report. In other words, what I have been able to glean is that everything will be done through this electronic format. It was indicated, at one point, that no resources have been allocated for a consultative process prior to May 2013.
Is this progress from the last UPR? I would say not. At least with the last UPR, albeit at the eleventh hour, in an untimely and disorganized fashion, there were face-to-face consultations across the country. What we found from those face-to-face consultations that was so invaluable was that hundreds of organizations were interested in human rights issues, even when they had not cast their mind to putting their work through a human rights lens. We will miss out on that when we are at the heart of the matter, the actual implementation of human rights.
I will conclude with two broad recommendations, if they can be considered as such. First, I think this committee needs to encourage the government to adopt an entirely different approach to human rights. If there is a rights-based approach to governance at all in this country — and I think that is a big "if" — it is one that asks a defensive question: Does the position of the government contravene the Charter or human rights law? A human rights-based approach to governance, however, can ask a forward-looking question. It can ask this: Does the decision adopted by the government move us toward a greater enjoyment of human rights?
I think the request made by Madam Chair for a plan on how each of the 39 recommendations will be acted upon is very much in keeping with a proactive, forward-looking approach to human rights implementation in the country.
My second and last recommendation is that the government needs to put in place mechanisms and structures so that rights can be claimed and governments can be held accountable. Mr. Neve will make further comments in that regard. Thank you.
Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada: Thank you and good evening, Madam Chair and committee members. I echo Ms. Farha's comments, that it is a pleasure to be in front of you and very heartening to see that this committee, which has been giving such focused attention to UN human rights-related issues and Canada's engagement in the human rights system for over a decade now, continues. It is very welcome. There are few other places within the parliamentary process where those important issues do get focused attention, so it is a pleasure to be with you once again.
I will pick up on the reflections and recommendations that Ms. Farha has shared with you with respect to Canada's first engagement with the UPR process in 2009 and looking ahead to round two next year in 2013.
She has highlighted for you some key and quite serious concerns and challenges with respect to the process both of preparing for Canada's UPR and of ensuring that recommendations that come out of the UPR are effectively implemented. They include working with indigenous organizations and civil society in both a timely and a meaningful manner and having more public accessibility, greater political accountability, and improved coordination amongst federal, provincial and territorial governments.
Those concerns are essential to ensuring that Canada's engagement with the UPR is not only meaningful in addressing important domestic human rights concerns but also sets a model for other states to follow.
These concerns apply equally to the manner in which Canada engages as a nation with other important international human rights matters. Such matters include deciding whether to support, and ultimately to ratify, key international human rights treaties; preparing for other human rights review processes, particularly the periodic reviews conducted by the major UN human rights treaty-monitoring bodies and the focused visits occasionally made to Canada by expert individuals or groups who are part of the UN Human Rights Council's special procedures system, such as the upcoming visit of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food or past visits from the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; and ensuring coordinated implementation of the recommendations directed to Canada from international human rights experts and bodies.
We continue to face significant shortcomings and challenges on all of those fronts.
A brief submitted to the UPR of Canada in 2009, which was endorsed or supported by 48 Canadian Aboriginal and civil society organizations, laid out concerns and recommendations with respect to what we termed "Canada's implementation gap." That brief began by noting that:
Our organizations are deeply concerned about the mounting gap between the commitments Canada has made on the world stage to protect human rights and the failure to live up to those promises at home.
We are particularly concerned that there is no transparent, effective and accountable means of ensuring that those commitments are implemented.
An appropriate intergovernmental institution with the authority and accountability to implement recommendations and respond to concerns has never existed in Canada. The federal, provincial and territorial Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights, in existence for more than 30 years, does not have that power. It has no decision-making authority, and its work is entirely in camera. Federal and provincial level human rights commissions are not able to play this role as they have limited mandates grounded in specific aspects of non-discrimination that do not extend to many of the rights enshrined in international instruments. There has been no inter-ministerial meeting or even senior level intergovernmental meeting dealing with human rights in Canada since 1988.
While much has happened on the international human rights front since 1988, just consider the following: Among countless other key developments with considerable significance for all levels of government in Canada, there have been seven treaties ratified by Canada since that time — three dealing with children's rights; one in the realm of international justice; one with complaints about discrimination against women; another, abolition of the death penalty; and most recently, the rights of persons living with disabilities.
There are also five important international treaties that have been adopted by the UN since that last meeting but that Canada has not ratified; these deal with migrant workers; the prevention of torture; disappearances; complaints processes regarding economic, social and cultural rights; and disability rights.
Additionally, there are other important new instruments that, while not treaties of considerable significance for Canada, have been adopted since that last meeting, most notably the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
On top of that, since the ministers last sat down together, there have been 17 reviews of Canada's record carried out by six different UN treaty bodies. There has been the Universal Periodic Review, and there have been at least six visits to Canada by UN Human Rights special procedures, including those dealing with indigenous people, the rights of migrants, adequate housing, racism, and arbitrary detention. There will be three reviews of Canada's record this year alone dealing with the committees that look at racial discrimination, torture, and the rights of children; and two visits by UN Special Rapporteurs dealing with the right to food and human rights and extreme poverty.
There are all of these new obligations, all of these unassumed obligations, all of these international-level reviews and visits, all of which engage both federal and provincial and territorial jurisdiction and responsibility and regarding all of which civil society and Aboriginal organizations have a great deal to say and offer, but there has been no gathering and there exists no process to ensure coordinated senior-level and, on occasion, ministerial attention and decision making.
We were certainly pleased to see a number of interesting suggestions made to Canada by many different governments in UPR recommendations dealing with better treaty body implementation and better consultation with civil society, and similar issues, and we welcomed Canada's acceptance, in part, of these suggestions.
Numerous UN bodies are on the record as having raised these concerns for more than 10 years now and have frequently called on Canada to improve its approach to implementation, and of course this very committee has frequently expressed concern in numerous reports going back to 2001 about these issues around implementation, consultation and coordination.
However, here we are in 2012 with more than a decade of recommendations from this committee, numerous UN human rights bodies, dozens and dozens of civil society and indigenous organizations and now, most recently, a number of other governments during the Canadian UPR all pressing for significant, substantial changes to Canada's approach to implementing international human rights obligations; and frankly, I think all three of us would have to say that sadly, in many respects, we are really no further ahead.
Over the years, we have repeatedly proposed a five-point action plan to federal, provincial and territorial governments. In my last few words here, I will sketch it out very broadly.
First, the process needs to be facilitated within a transparent, coordinated and accountable human rights framework. It is not. Right now it is a handful of meetings in which civil society and Aboriginal groups lay out concerns and recommendations but hear back nothing more than "thank you, we will pass on your views." Meetings in which there is no engagement and no dialogue do not constitute an accountable, meaningful consultation process as part of a solid human rights framework.
There are several pieces we need to see. Currently, for instance, the involvement of provincial and territorial officials in consultations and implementation is not open. It is not transparent. There is little or no coordination or facilitation of provincial and territorial engagement with civil society and indigenous peoples' groups. That needs to change. It also requires a coordinated approach amongst federal, provincial and territorial governments at a more senior level that facilitates transparent and accountable decision making, beyond the in camera information sharing done by officials in a continuing committee. That federal, provincial and territorial ministerial human rights meeting, almost 25 years overdue now, would be a good start.
Second, the process needs to be an ongoing one. Rather than waiting until the preparation of the next periodic report to a particular treaty body or other review process to consult with NGOs and indigenous peoples about the key concerns from the last review, there needs to be an open, transparent and ongoing process of monitoring, reporting and dialogue with respect to action taken in response to recommendations and concerns throughout the years between the reviews.
Third, related to that point, information needs to be readily and easily accessible to Canadians. There should be somewhere that Canadians can easily determine, for instance, the status of possible ratification of key human rights treaties. Within the UN alone, there are five that Canada has not yet ratified, but it would be almost impossible for any Canadian to figure out whether ratification of any of those five is being considered. If not, why not and what obstacles may stand in the way, if any, to ratification? I follow this issue very closely and I find it almost impossible to obtain that information.
Similarly, there is nowhere that Canadians can turn to determine where things stand with regard to the implementation of UN recommendations or whether decisions have been taken not to implement particular recommendations and if so why.
Fourth, the government's process of preparing its formal reports to UN bodies and review processes should be transparent and accountable to Parliament, provincial legislatures and the public. Advance discussion of a draft report before a parliamentary committee or some other alternative, open, facilitated public process is critical to meaningful accountability in the reporting process. Right now, Canadians have no glimpse at what their governments are saying to the UN about their rights until that report is signed, sealed and delivered to Geneva. Canada is soon to present its first report under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, due in April of this year, and I am told there has not yet been much substantive engagement with the key civil society groups about that report. It is not too late to adopt a more open, participatory and accountable approach to the preparation of that report.
Last, I have to raise the issue of resources. There needs to be greater support, including financial support, to ensure that civil society and indigenous peoples organizations are able to play a meaningful role in the implementation process. It is key, but it needs support if it is to be meaningful and genuine. Thank you.
Sandeep Prasad, Executive Director, Action Canada for Population and Development (ACPD): Thank you, Madam Chair, honourable senators. Good evening. It is a privilege to once again appear before this committee as a witness. I have 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 five-year review having just been completed, with the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review just beginning and with the Government of Canada commencing preparations for its second 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, first, progress and challenges in the work of the council and the UPR after the five-year review; and second, Canada's participation in the work of the council and the UPR. I will end with some suggestions for improving Canada's role in this respect.
First, the outcome of the five-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 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 category is by far the vast majority, and we see the council making strides in some new areas that show tremendous progress of the body.
For example, in June the council adopted a historic resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity. Second, the council is leading cutting-edge work on the human rights dimensions of maternal mortality and morbidity. Third, 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 is a good question to now ask what the first cycle of reviews has yielded. 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, however, 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 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. 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.
Two examples include 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 Special Rapporteur; and 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 toward 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.
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 insure that domestic and other policies are shaped to reflect best practices and the spirit of these resolutions that I have just mentioned. For instance, Canada co-sponsored the historic resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity, 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. 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 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.
Last, 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 three 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. We would be honoured to answer any questions you might have.
Senator Meredith: Thank you for your passion and presentations.
Ms. Farha, I sense your frustration at this process and the fact that we just heard from the departments of Justice, Foreign Affairs and Canadian Heritage that this process is open and that civil society is being consulted. Did I hear you correctly that that is not the case, and can you elaborate as to why that is not the case?
Ms. Farha: I do not know that I would agree that it has not been an open process with civil society to some extent. We have been invited to a series of consultations or meetings. In fact, they never called them "consultations" originally; they called them "engagement sessions" because they were not consulting us. The government had already submitted its report prior to meeting with us. That was before the first review.
Since then, there is no doubt that there have been a few meetings, but I will give you one example. Between the review and the government's acceptance of recommendations, they held a meeting in Gatineau. The meeting was mostly of national NGOs because it was in Gatineau and there were no resources, or limited resources, to bring people from outside. There were a few people from Montreal, but that was the extent.
Therein begins the lack of meaningful consultation. National organizations do a great job, but we do not represent everyone, and we have very different ways of speaking to issues, especially local issues.
That meeting was interesting. Some of the bureaucrats that attended the meeting were really engaged and were definitely interested in the UPR stuff. They did not know a lot about it, but they were learning. However, there was no sense that there was some connection between that meeting and what the Government of Canada decided to accept as a recommendation through the UPR process. There is a disconnect.
For people who work in these areas — I work in the area of housing — it is not satisfactory to pick my brain for a day and ask me about homelessness and poverty issues confronting the most marginalized people in the country and then say, "Thanks very much." There is no follow up or sense that what you are contributing is meaningful, will be taken seriously and moved to the next step and next stage, because there is no plan.
I cannot really speak to why it is happening this way, except for a lack of commitment to human rights. My colleagues might want to weigh in on this.
Mr. Neve: I would totally agree with Ms. Farha's characterization. There have been meetings. We know many of the officials who have been involved in planning and bringing those meetings together and we appreciate their efforts. We know a lot of hard work has gone into planning those meetings.
I think one of the big problems we have is that nothing backs that up at the political level. The meetings that happen between officials and civil society are with officials who have no authority, no jurisdiction to respond to what they are hearing, or to offer views or opinions about the validity or the effectiveness of particular recommendations that are made. The decision-making lies elsewhere in very fragmented ways, which never comes together in a coordinated manner, bringing together all the key federal departments and provincial and territorial ministries that are involved in a way that there could be some meaningful civil society dialogue at that level.
I think the feeling that organizations are constantly left with is that they provide views and information, but nothing comes back. I think one of the very defining features of a meaningful dialogue and consultation process is that it is two-way. Both parties have a sense as to where their views and information are going and have an understanding as to how that is feeding in to whatever the result will be. We are nowhere close to having that. I think, universally, almost all organizations that participate in the handful of meetings that are held come away with nothing but a sense of dissatisfaction because there is no sense at all of having really engaged in a meaningful process.
Senator Meredith: No one is taking responsibility. I think you mentioned, Mr. Neve, the implementation processes for these recommendations. Whether it is Foreign Affairs or Canadian Heritage, they seem to be passing the buck to each other and saying, "I thought you were doing it." Ten years go by and still we are not any further ahead.
You talked about three more reviews for Canada. Can you elaborate a little on who originates those reviews and what the follow up is?
Mr. Neve: Addressing your first comments, I think that is absolutely the right characterization. Some processes and bodies do exist. The CCOHR has been around for more than three decades and does its work behind closed doors, and civil society cannot engage there in any meaningful way. We know there is an interdepartmental federal process or group that meets fairly regularly, but again with no engagement with civil society.
In the past we were told that there were deputy minister processes and committees that brought departments together within the federal government but with no civil society engagement. Nothing brought all the players together in an overarching, meaningful, accountable and decision-making manner. We still do not have that.
With respect to the reviews planned for this year, three treaty bodies are reviewing Canada's record of compliance with three different treaties. One is next month. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination will be looking at Canada's record in that area. In May, the Committee Against Torture will be looking at Canada's record under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In the fall, I believe in September, the Committee on the Rights of the Child will be looking at Canada's record on that convention. In fact, this week the Committee on the Rights of the Child is holding a pre-sessional review of Canada where they are starting to hear about what kind of issues should be focused on in Canada's upcoming review.
Mr. Prasad: I think the last comment you made, Senator Meredith, was the crux of the problem that has us in this situation with respect to consultations.
In terms of my colleagues' comments on the consultations after your first question, I agree fully with what they have said.
I would add a couple of points. We have not finished the business of the last UPR — the first one that Canada has gone through. We still lack, in my view, any sort of implementation plan to take the accepted recommendations and put them into a coherent plan of work, a national action plan that will put us on solid ground for the next review.
We hear rumours that internally the government has a document they use to track implementation of recommendations, but we have not seen it. These consultation processes also lack some degree of transparency.
Political engagement is another part of the problem. As an example, I just attended the Minister of International Cooperation's Muskoka round table. That had a lot of engagement from the political level. The minister was in attendance as well as senior CIDA staffers. That level of engagement is what we need in the human rights area domestically, on an ongoing and regular basis, involving provincial and territorial governments as well.
Senator Meredith: I always look at this process and say millions of dollars are spent on gathering witnesses and bringing reports together. I am not one who supports reports being created just for the sake of there being a report, when the implementation is a critical component. What would you say to this committee for us to drive forward some of these recommendations? As you heard before, 39 of them have not been implemented. What would you recommend? Chair, I am being broad with my question so jump in regarding what we can do.
I think it is time that we stop being hypocrites — let me be clear — and actually do what we are saying we will do. We talk about human rights, yet we are not doing what we ought to be doing. That is hypocritical on the world stage, and it is not just one administration. This has been 10 years now. The previous administration also had its faults. This is not about finger pointing but about doing the right thing. My question on the previous round was how the report has affected our credibility on the world stage. I think it is important. As senators sitting around this table on both sides, we want to see Canada move forward. I think it is important that we drive home to the department heads and ministers that it is now time. Every time there is a gathering, resources are brought together, spent, and if there is no implementation, then for me, as businessman, we are wasting taxpayers' dollars. Let us not bother committing to something if we are not going to implement.
I am being forceful about that, and I will probably get my hand slapped later, but that is fine. We are doing the right thing, and we have to get to a point where we say enough is enough, let us do the rights thing, protect our reputation on the world stage and implement. We should not circumvent that in any way. We should go ahead and do it.
My question broadly is what can we do at this committee level. We are paid by the taxpayers to do the right thing, make the reports, ensure that things get done and that the quality of people's lives is improved. What can we do?
Mr. Neve: I am sure that we all have something to offer. I will start with two suggestions.
We have all highlighted that implementation is the big challenge here. Amongst other things, the problems around implementation are that it is so difficult to understand where implementation stands and what progress is being made. Perhaps this committee could require, on a regular basis, implementation updates to be filed with you. We would go even further and suggest that you hold hearings with respect to those reports, or those interim implementation updates, with respect to both the Universal Periodic Review and the treaty bodies and that that happen on a regular basis between the review sessions so that everyone is staying on track, so that you as parliamentarians are able to monitor the progress or lack of progress on implementation, and so that it is happening within a parliamentary process, which gives some degree of public transparency and accessibility.
I will come back to my pet recommendation, which is the long overdue need for a ministerial meeting dealing with human rights issues. I do not think that would, by any means, solve all of these problems, but we have to find ways to creatively generate new models for how this country comes together at senior political levels to grapple with the human rights challenges we face and to ensure that we are properly engaging with and implementing our international recommendations. No matter the goodwill and hard work done by officials who gather twice a year in processes such as the continuing committee — they will only be able to go part way down that road unless and until there is some sort of complementary, meaningful political-level process that backs them up. I think a ministerial-level meeting is one way of kick-starting the kinds of discussions and imagination that we need to bring to figuring that out.
I know this committee has recommended that in the past. That is a recommendation you need to come back to in whatever will come out of the study that you are currently engaged in. You, as members of the parliamentary process, have the ability to take both federal and provincial ministers aside to start to generate interest in having something like that come together.
Ms. Farha: Those recommendations are great and I completely endorse them.
Part of the problem is related to your earlier point about protecting Canada's reputation at the international level, which has been compromised in a number of areas. My area is economic and social rights. In particular, I look at poverty and homelessness issues for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Canada's position internationally has been completely out of step with the international community in that area.
If you look at what Canada is doing and saying about rights like the right to water or the right to adequate housing, you will see that Canada does not believe that these rights are justiciable. They would not even admit anymore in an international public forum that these are rights at all, and that is totally out of step with the international community. Back home we say, "What can we do about implementation?" When your government does not believe these are human rights and that they do have obligations, we have a bigger problem.
I ask myself what this committee can do about that bigger problem, and I think that doing what you are doing now is very helpful. The mechanisms that Mr. Neve suggested would be helpful. It would be pretty onerous to ask for implementation updates for every treaty body that they go to at the UN and the UPR, but if you asked for even a broad-strokes plan for whatever is coming up periodically, as you did of the earlier panel, that would be a good start. It would at least indicate to the government that this committee views many things as human rights and that you are keeping your eye on them.
Mr. Prasad: I fully support the comments of my colleagues. Implementation plans would be a great start. We lack public information about these implementation plans. We do not know where the government stands on these recommendations in terms of implementing them. When we get recommendations from treaty bodies we do not necessarily know the government's position on them.
In the lead-up to reporting processes where the government is required to submit a report, it would be great to see a parliamentary committee such as this asking to see a draft of that report before it is submitted and calling witnesses to discuss it.
Senator Ataullahjan: In your opinion, we have not implemented some of the lessons and recommendations from our last UPR experience. Do you feel we are on track for the next one?
Ms. Farha: I wish the chart that some of us have been involved in putting together about Canada's implementation of the 39 recommendations was in some form that I could share with you. It is still in draft form.
The Chair: Would you be able to make that available to us in a few weeks?
Ms. Farha: Absolutely. We are in the midst of finalizing it, so it should be available within a month.
As I scanned through in preparation for this meeting, I was appalled at how many of the recommendations have not been touched from what I can tell and based on our NGO assessments.
With due respect, I think that we have answered the question as to whether Canada is getting ready or making good progress for UPR 2. Part of making progress for UPR 2 would be implementing the recommendations from the first review, so I think we are not meeting the mark in that regard at all.
We have discussed the consultation process to date and, unless there is marked improvement in the next few months, I do not see that consultative process being successful and meaningful, and that is not in keeping with spirit with the UPR. I do not know whether Mr. Prasad mentioned that in his comments. He often does remind us that the UPR was supposed to be a new mechanism within the UN system that would develop better dialogues and therefore implementation of human rights between governments, civil society and Aboriginal organizations.
No, I do not think we are meeting the mark.
The Chair: When you give us the chart, we would like to share it with government officials to get their response, if you are comfortable with that. Let us know how you feel about that.
Senator Hubley: Mr. Prasad, you spoke briefly on the Brazilian model and explained why that model is working to the satisfaction that ours is not. Could you tell us what other countries might present a role model for Canada in moving forward with our consultation process and eventually preparing for the next UPR?
Mr. Prasad: Brazil's model speaks to me very clearly because of the obvious aspects of parliamentary scrutiny and repeated consultations in a transparent fashion on a draft. I know the U.K. had a strong process. I am not sure whether it involved parliamentary scrutiny per se, but there were definitely transparent exchanges over a draft before it was finalized.
I would have to come back to you in due course with further examples, if that would be okay.
Senator Hubley: What do you envisage parliamentary scrutiny entailing?
Mr. Prasad: I am sure my colleagues will have a different response, but I envision parliamentarians looking at a draft.
Senator Hubley: Members of the House of Commons.
Mr. Prasad: My Brazilian colleagues will reflect on a change in the tone of the draft report between the time when the government had first drafted it and after they had received written comments and had the Brazilian Senate hearing. In their words, the mea culpa aspect of the government's report was strengthened a lot through that process. Previously, the government was listing its successes in the area of human rights; but after that process, it became much more circumspect, reflecting on the challenges it was experiencing in the area of human rights protection. That is an important aspect.
Mr. Neve: A central role for a committee such as this is holding hearings and having an opportunity to look at a draft report. The other challenge we face in Canada, and I do not think we necessarily have an easy solution to propose, is what kind of meaningful way provincial legislatures could be drawn in. Many of the shortcomings and challenges we face in the Canadian process — the almost non-existent degree to which legislatures follow, engage with or are even aware of these processes and what is or is not being said on human rights issues in their provinces or territories as these go forward — make up another key piece. Whether it is realistic to imagine that Parliament and every legislature in the country would hold hearings of some kind to look at a report is perhaps a little excessive. However, some means by which provincial legislative scrutiny can be brought into this as well is key.
The Chair: Some of my questions will be specific. If you feel we should wait for your plan on the 47 recommendations, I am content with that, but I will ask them nonetheless. Half of the 68 recommendations were on the state of our Aboriginal communities. Are you aware of what kind of consultations there have been with Aboriginal communities? Are you working with them?
Mr. Neve: None of us would be comfortable speaking for Aboriginal organizations, which would have their own very strong views about this. All we can offer perhaps is some of our observations of civil society.
I would go back to the consultation — the Gatineau meeting, as it has come to be known — that Ms. Farha referred to in her remarks. This meeting was held between the time Canada had been reviewed and had received all the recommendations but had not yet gone back to the council to indicate which recommendations they were accepting, which is the critical moment in the UPR process.
That meeting was actually quite important. It was disappointing on a variety of fronts because it had much of the flavour of these one-way dialogues that I was describing earlier. One day of that meeting was for civil society and a second day was for indigenous organizations. I was not at that second day, and I do not think any of us were, so we cannot give you an assessment of the feeling at the end of the day. Certainly, I have never heard exuberant reference to that meeting. The experience was probably quite similar to the largely one-way dialogue that we had with very little coming back.
The more recent meetings have blended the two. Certainly, a recent unprecedented meeting opened up a bit of a dialogue session in advance of the November meeting of the Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights. Three or four provinces came to the meeting, which was a disappointment, but the fact that it happened at all was unprecedented. A handful of Aboriginal organizations were at the meeting, but there was no specific or separate attempt to open up a particular consultation with Aboriginal groups, which is absolutely essential. I know that Aboriginal groups never feel that it is appropriate to be lumped in with civil society organizations. Many of those organizations represent nations in themselves. A different kind of consultation needs to happen, and I have not seen much evidence of that.
Ms. Farha: We work quite closely with Aboriginal groups on the UPR. Separate meetings with Aboriginal organizations and groups were fought hard for. It was not the default position of the government; there were two and they were both fought very hard for. The Aboriginal organization that we work with would say that it remains a big issue, especially in light of the concern of the international community with respect to the conditions for Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
The Chair: My next question has to do with poverty reduction. In its written and oral submissions for its first Universal Periodic Review, Canada stated that it accepted there was still much to do with respect to certain challenges, for example poverty reduction. Given that position of the Government of Canada, although you might want to wait until you give us the chart, what is your opinion as to what implementation there has been on the issue of poverty reduction?
Ms. Farha: To be clear, Canada rejected the recommendation that it adopt a national poverty reduction strategy. Technically, it will not be required to show that it implemented one. On the other hand, concerns were raised around homelessness and poverty amongst the Aboriginal population, so they are not totally off the hook. As I recall, and this is from memory so forgive me if I am wrong, they used jurisdictional issues to get around having to come up with a national anti-poverty strategy.
I can assure you that very little has been done in terms of implementation that addresses poverty issues. I actually think we are at an opportune moment in our political economic history in Canada because the government is about to announce, or has started to leak, its austerity measures. There is no more important time to deal with their accountability vis-à-vis human rights and poverty issues. I would be surprised if we see it, but that is what we would be looking for.
Mr. Neve: As Ms. Farha said, the government rejected the proposal for a national poverty reduction strategy, which I have in front of me. Their reasons for doing so were stunning. It said that Canada does not accept Recommendation 17 to develop a national strategy to eliminate poverty and that the provinces and territories have jurisdiction in this area of social policy and have developed their own programs to address poverty.
That full square highlights the incredible difficulty there is in ensuring that federal and provincial governments come together in the right way to ensure national delivery on these human rights obligations. To see that the federal government felt it was appropriate to reject a critical recommendation around a fundamental human rights issue, such as dealing with poverty, on the basis that it was provincial and territorial responsibility so dramatically illustrates how uncoordinated the process is and how little coherence there is in terms of the federal and provincial governments realizing that these are shared obligations that must be taken up and delivered in a shared manner.
The Chair: One of my preoccupations with the Universal Periodic Review is that the government states that it is consulting and reaching out to people. With the greatest respect, I do not mean the national organizations only but organizations right across Canada.
I find their website very inadequate. It is very difficult to get information. It is difficult to make submissions. It would be useful if you could give us some suggestions as to how we could recommend that the government improve their website. I am not talking about the fancy part of the website, but what kind of information do you think would be useful to have on the site?
Mr. Neve: Amongst other thing, Canadians want to see the status of action with regard to a range of human rights issues. As I highlighted, there are a number of key human rights treaties that Canada has not yet ratified. There should be somewhere easily accessible that gives Canadians the ability to really engage with and understand where those stand, why they are not moving forward, what the obstacles are and, if there is a decision not to sign on, what the clear reasons for that are. Similarly, with respect to all these issues around implementation of key recommendations, there should be somewhere where Canadians can easily find information that says where implementation stands. That is simply not there right now.
Mr. Prasad: To me, just to echo the last point, that is a fundamental gap. So much has been said to Canada by international bodies and by human rights mechanisms about how to concretely improve the situation of human rights in Canada. The public should have ready access to that information in one place, without having to search through many UN documents to find that and to have an indication from the government what it has been doing in those areas to remedy the situation. That is a fundamental gap that must be addressed.
Ms. Farha: I will admit that I never use their website because I do not find it useful. I always use the UN website that gathers all of our NGO reports, everything the UN has said to Canada, what Canada has replied, et cetera. You are right to point out the inadequacies of their website.
I will not add to my colleagues' suggestions, which were all very good. I will only say that a website should do what a website can do, which is to convey information. I do not think a website should try to do what it cannot do, which is to consult with NGOs.
The Chair: The UPR process is sort of two-pronged. One part of it is internal, and the other part is the role Canada plays in reviewing other countries. You were in the room when Mr. Angell talked about Canada asking probing questions. How are we faring with the second duty we have in the UPR process?
Mr. Neve: I think Canada should be commended. Canada has approached the UPR of other countries with integrity. I am sure if we went through the entire list, because every country has now been reviewed in the first round, there would be a review here or there that would make me disappointed that a question was not asked as pointedly as we wished it to be.
Overall, Canada's commitment to engage in every UPR is key. I do not know whether they succeeded. I know that was their goal. There may have been one or two they missed, but I think it is key. It really demonstrates Canada's belief in the universal nature of human rights and the universal nature of the process. The questions and recommendations that were posed were very often the right ones, really focused on key human rights concerns in the country. In fact, issues that Canada has often been less likely to raise bilaterally with countries — we often get a sense of disappointment that an issue does not get squarely raised during a trade mission with that country or something of that ilk — were there in the UPR process. I think there is a lot to congratulate Canada on there.
Mr. Prasad: I would certainly agree with that assessment. On the second aspect of engagement, as you call it, Madam Chair, Canada has been doing quite well. I think it is the country that has made the most number of recommendations in the UPR, which is good. As my colleague has said, maybe for a couple I would have questions about why this was put this way and so on, but generally it has been good. Canada has covered a range of issues.
I would recommend that the government reduce repetition of recommendations that other delegations might have said earlier in a review so that there is more of a robust coverage of themes within particular reviews. However, I would generally reflect quite positively on this.
The Chair: The other question I have, which came up earlier today with the first panel, was on the office of religious freedom. What impact will Canada's performance have on this? My colleague, Senator Nolin, raised the issue of the Copts in Egypt, and our Prime Minister is now going to China. The issue of the Muslims in China is another issue that rarely gets brought up.
What do you think? Do you think that the office of religious freedom will be promoting the human rights agenda?
Mr. Neve: Amnesty International has made a number of recommendations to the government. We have not yet been invited to any of the consultation meetings for the office, so we have not been at the table or had an opportunity to get a sense of the issues of potential concern that have been raised by some, for instance whether it is being developed in a way that is truly inclusive of all religions.
We totally agree that religious freedom is an incredibly important human rights issue. Amnesty International has been researching, documenting and campaigning about religious persecution in a variety of ways all over the world since our beginnings in 1961. Among the first prisoners of conscience adopted by Amnesty International were women and men in prison because of their religious beliefs. We do not at all disagree. In fact, we very much promote and encourage an initiative of this sort.
We have been concerned about what has seemed to be not enough transparency with respect to how the office is being developed, who is or is not involved in consultations and what is or is not being discussed. It has been very difficult for journalists or anyone not invited to those meetings to get access to that information. That is problematic because, rightly or wrongly, that is what starts to develop concerns or misgivings. I do not think that is the foot that something like this wants to get off on.
We have heard assurances from the minister himself that this will be an office of freedom for all religions. It has been very important to hear that. I think, however, that because of the lack of transparency around the consultation meetings, there are still doubts and worries about that. By opening things up and having greater transparency, confidence that this is truly inclusive of all religions would build.
Perhaps the most important concern for a human rights organization is that we approach religious freedom within the wider framework of all human rights protections and standards. We certainly know from years and decades of human rights research that religious freedom often has a very complicated, sometimes contentious, relationship with other human rights. Violations of other human rights are sometimes the cause of violations of the right to religious freedom. Similarly, religious freedom can be promoted in ways that have very negative implications for women's equality, for the rights of lesbians and gays, for freedom of expression and for the rights of other religious minorities.
We have urged at this very initial stage, as the mandate is being established and the working methods are being worked out, that the office's approach to religious freedom be absolutely situated within a human rights framework that will grapple with all dimensions of how religious freedom fits into that wider range of human rights. If that is given short shrift or some of those more complicated issues get ignored or overlooked, I think a valuable opportunity for Canada to approach religious freedom in a very dynamic way will be lost.
Mr. Prasad: I think the approach to the establishment of this office has been outside of a human rights-based approach, in my view. There has been tremendous lack of transparency around this, a lack of participation of human rights organizations and women's rights organizations regarding how this office is to be set up, how to handle many of the tensions that may arise as this office discharges its mandate.
I think what Mr. Neve just said is quite telling, that in fact one of the largest human rights organizations in Canada has not actually been consulted on the development of this office. For me, there are quite a few concerns in this respect in the development of this office.
The Chair: As we are being broadcast and people are watching us, by the largest human rights organization, you mean Amnesty International, right?
Mr. Prasad: Yes. Thank you.
The Chair: Finally, although this is not completely to do with the UPR, but because we brought up religious freedom, with the Arab Spring, people like me are very concerned that the Arab Spring is a good idea but that the rights of women there, especially in Egypt with what is happening, will be trampled. Since all three of you are knowledgeable on this issue, I would like to hear from you how you feel about the effects on women with the Arab Spring.
Ms. Farha: Oh, dear. Well, I share your concern. On the other hand, the Arab Spring is remarkable and essential and important, so it goes back to Mr. Neve's point. We have competing things going on, and both are very important.
I share your concern. I do not work on those issues in my day-to-day work, though they are the issues that preoccupy me in my day-to-day life. There is an international movement that is also concerned with women's rights in those countries, and I am trusting that those groups will do everything they can to help. In particular, you raised the issues for Egyptian women. I get lots of email traffic indicating that there is international community response. I can only hope that it is effective.
Mr. Neve: I could not agree more. Amnesty International's research and campaigning over the past year has highlighted that as certainly one of the most dominant, if not in many respects the dominant, concern we have. I think Egypt is the most obvious and pointed example, but it plays out right across the region.
In Egypt it was exhilarating on every level imaginable to see how women were empowered and such strong leaders, not just participants, a year ago now, as things were playing out so dramatically, and then they very quickly found themselves in a whole variety of ways being sidelined. Amnesty International pointed to many of those developments right after President Mubarak stepped down and we were supposedly entering a new era. On the new committee that has formed to figure out where the Egyptian Constitution will go, there is not a single woman. Here is a fundamentally important moment in shaping the next steps of the transition, and there are no women at the table. That is just one example.
The virginity tests that a number of female protesters, after the fall of Mubarak, again in the new era, were saying they were being forced to undergo after being arrested for participating in protests are again a shocking indication of how far there still is to go.
I think it is crucial that we as an international community maintain very solid engagement and meaningful pressure with respect to all of the emerging new authorities in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and who knows what else still awaits across the region to ensure that a strong women's equality and women's human rights agenda is absolutely central to the new institutions and new laws that are being put in place.
Mr. Prasad: I had the opportunity to meet with a number of Egyptian colleagues from a feminist human rights organization based in Cairo just after Mr. Mubarak announced his resignation, and the triumph and elation and sense of victory that they felt was contagious and heartwarming. I think they would still feel that sense of elation and accomplishment despite the challenges that exist at the current time. This is the time where we have to look at how to strengthen the capacity of those civil society actors that are organizing around women's rights and key human rights issues and how do we increase their capacity and make sure we are shining the spotlight on their important work.
The Chair: To add to that, it is not just Egypt. There is the region of Sudan, the other Maghreb countries. The virginity test is a big issue, so we need to look at all of them.
Ms. Farha, Mr. Neve and Mr. Prasad, you always take a lot of time before you present to us on what we should hear. We know how much time you take before and then you spend the time with us in committee and then afterwards, and we always look forward to hearing from you. We learn a lot from you, and then it gives us an amount of ammunition to go back as to how we improve the system.
The Canadians watching, we all agree that human rights in Canada are something we can be very proud of, but we can never take them for granted, so there is a lot of work to do, and you are in the forefront of that work and we thank you.
Before we go in camera, is it acceptable to have staff and advisers remain during the in camera session?
Hon. Senators: Agreed.
The Chair: We will take a 10-minute recess and then resume.
(The committee continued in camera.)