United Nations to Review Canada’s Record on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

By Nicholas Caivano, Amnesty International Canada’s Public Interest Articling Fellow

Amnesty International has published its submission to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in advance of the Committee’s review of Canada in Geneva, Switzerland on February 24 and 25.  This will be CESCR’s first review of Canada in a decade.  Notably it is also the first human rights review of Canada by any UN body under Canada’s new government.

So all eyes are on Geneva.  And all eyes are on Canada.  In fact the hashtag for this week’s review is #EyesOnCanada.  That certainly includes Amnesty International’s eyes.  The organization has a 3 person team from both Canadian branches there raising numerous recommendations across a range of important human rights concerns.

The CESCR is responsible for monitoring States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, a key UN human rights treaty that Canada ratified in 1976. After the review, the Committee will issue a set of recommendations to assist Canada in implementing its human rights obligations.

In the submission, Amnesty International sets out concerns that include Canada’s inadequate implementation of its international human rights obligations, the rights of Indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees, women, prisoners, the homeless, transgender people, persons with disabilities, and individuals abroad who come into contact with Canadian transnational corporations. 

The submission highlights the opportunities and the urgency of reversing the notable decline in Canada’s domestic and global human rights standing in recent years and also of moving ahead with long-needed reforms to advance stronger human rights protection nationally and internationally.  

In particular, Amnesty International notes that Canada should respect Indigenous land rights and not pursue projects with potential significant harm to the rights of Indigenous peoples where consent has not been granted. The government should take immediate measures to implement outstanding recommendations from UN human rights bodies and others to address urgent and longstanding needs, including increased funding for women’s shelters and other supports in Indigenous communities. 

Consultations are underway leading to the expected launch of an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women later this year.  It is crucial that the inquiry be national and not only federal in scope and that it feed into a sorely needed national action plan dealing with violence against all women in Canada, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

In the wake of the welcome news that the government will not appeal a recent ground-breaking ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, Amnesty International is now pressing the government to work with First Nations to eliminate the discriminatory gap in funding for First Nations child and family services and ensure equitable access to culturally appropriate programmes and support services within families and communities.

With respect to the rights of migrants and refugees, Amnesty International welcomes the recent news that Canada will restore the Interim Federal Health Program for refugee claimants and refugees in Canada. More is needed to comply with international law.  The government must ensure equal access to essential healthcare for all individuals in Canada, including irregular migrants, regardless of immigration status. It should also improve protections for migrant workers by offering open work permits that allow them to move between employers, thereby improving working and living conditions and rendering them less susceptible to abuse.

Amnesty International has also noted that the importance of developing a national housing strategy designed to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the right to adequate housing including prioritizing the crisis of homelessness. Concern about the lack of a nationwide approach to ensure inclusive education for children with disabilities is highlighted.  And the organization calls on Canada to end its current practice of solitary confinement, with its detrimental and often irreversible impact on both physical and mental health.  Its use should be limited as a measure of last resort for as short a time as possible under strict supervision, prohibiting its use against children and individuals with mental health problems and ensuring a possibility of judicial review. 

Amnesty International also urges Canada to pass laws that ensure access to Canadian courts for victims of human rights abuses arising from the overseas operations of Canadian extractive firms, among other issues.

After a decade of false starts with private members legislation that was consistently thwarted by the previous government, Amnesty International has urged Canada to prioritize legal reforms to protect the rights of transgender individuals in the country.

A set of overarching recommendations apply to all economic, social and cultural rights, for all people in Canada.  A meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for human rights is long overdue (more than ¼ century overdue in fact), so that an effective approach to giving effect to Canada’s international human rights obligations can be agreed.   

And we need to hear from the Canadian delegation in Geneva that the new government is at long last ready to recognize that economic, social and cultural rights are full and equal rights, deserving of protection and enforcement as much as other rights dealing with torture, fair trials and free expression.  The notion that rights to health, housing and education are second-class rights must at long last come to an end.

Read press release

Read the full submission here.

Read an executive summary of the submission here.