Op-Ed: Getting back on the human rights track

By: Alex Neve and Béatrice Vaugrante Published on Fri Jan 02 2015 in the Toronto Star

No doubt about it, 2014 has been a tough year for human rights. As we look ahead into 2015, with a federal election sometime in the next 10 months, it is time to turn things around. That means addressing serious concerns in Canada and championing improvements around the world.

Every year has its share of human rights heartbreak, but 2014 was particularly heavy. The wrenching catastrophe that has displaced half of all Syrians worsened. Tragedies in the Central African Republic and South Sudan claimed more victims. Another cycle of rocket attacks and reprisals in Israel and Gaza was marked by an exceptionally fierce Israeli military assault on Gaza. Unexpected and devastating conflicts erupted in Ukraine and northern Iraq.

On the home front, the long-standing crisis of violence against indigenous women and girls came to the fore this year with two Winnipeg riverside tragedies involving Cree teenage girls. Tina Fontaine’s body was pulled out of the Red River in August. Rinelle Harper was found on the banks of the Assiniboine in November. Tina Fontaine was murdered. Rinelle Harper was brutally attacked but survived. Both highlight that a disgraceful human rights failing is not getting better.

Concern about Canada’s approach to refugee protection deepened. The Federal Court intervened and overturned punitive refugee health-care cuts. And Canadians were troubled by their government’s failure to make a generous pledge to resettle Syrian refugees.

Canada does continue to make important contributions to addressing serious global human rights problems, such as maternal and child health; child, early and forced marriage; and entrenched violations in countries like Iran, Sri Lanka and Syria.
But that is undermined by shortcomings at home, particularly in upholding the rights of indigenous peoples. It is set back by polarizing positions on the world stage, such as the refusal to even mildly chide the Israeli government for its transgressions. And it is eroded by a failure to engage fully with the international human rights system, evidenced by failure to sign on to important treaties dealing with torture prevention and the arms trade.

Human rights rarely emerge as a priority issue in any election. But human rights are central to the issues likely to dominate next year’s campaign.

Economic growth will not be sustainable without strong respect for indigenous peoples’ land rights, greater corporate accountability for upholding human rights and a trade policy grounded in human rights.

Law and orderwill be incomplete without addressing complicity in torture, allowing human rights lawsuits to go ahead against foreign governments, and adopting the long-delayed Bill C-279 to protect transgender people.

Too many families and communities will be left behind unless a public inquiry and national action plan for violence against indigenous women go ahead, unforgivable inequalities with respect to safe water, health care, education and housing on First Nations reserves are resolved, and the human rights dimensions of poverty are taken up by courts.

Security reforms will not be meaningful without meaningful human rights oversight of Canada’s national security agencies. And to ensure our borders are not shameful barriers to safety, it is time to turn back recent mean-spirited refugee reforms and respond generously to Syrian refugees.

Canada’s signature foreign policy initiatives dealing with women and girls are commendable but are hampered by refusal to fully take up sexual and reproductive rights. Across a range of measures, Canada’s standing as a leader with respect to women’s equality has slipped. We need a leaders’ debate in the 2015 election focused on issues identified by Canadian women and girls. The last one was in 1984.

And what of freedom and democracy? Strong criticism about some countries is undercut by silence with respect to others. That is matched by inconsistency in taking up cases of Canadians who experience human rights violations in other countries. It is not helped by taking potshots at UN human rights experts. And fine words about freedom on the world stage are increasingly called into question by wide-ranging measures targeted at punishing and curtailing advocacy and dissent within Canada.

Often we hope that human rights will make it onto election agendas. In 2015 it is time to recognize that human rights are the agenda. Failure to take necessary action sets back rights and justice. Embracing human rights lays the ground for meaningful, sustainable and inclusive progress, no matter the issue.

Alex Neve is Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English Branch. Béatrice Vaugrante is Director General of Amnesty International Canada’s Francophone Branch.