Amnesty International’s Legal Work
Amnesty International’s mission is to ensure that every person enjoys all the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments such as (but not exclusively):
- the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
- the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
- the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment;
- the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women;
- the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination;
- the Convention on the Rights of the Child;
- the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; and
- the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
International human rights treaties are formal agreements between governments that create binding law. When a country signs a human rights treaty, it agrees to protect and promote the human rights standards set out in that treaty for every person on its territory or under its authority.
Governments do this by passing laws – like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada – to protect human rights. National courts have the responsibility of making sure that their laws are consistent with constitutional and international norms, and ordering remedies when human rights are violated. Governments also have to show to other countries that they are complying with international human rights law by reporting to them at the United Nations and other international fora.
In addition to its monitoring work and public campaigns, Amnesty International is very involved in legal work to ensure that the Canadian and provincial governments are acting consistently with their international human rights obligations. Amnesty’s legal work frequently involves the themes of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, security and human rights, the rights of refugees and migrants, and corporate accountability, among others. There are three main areas of Amnesty International’s legal work:
- Intervening before courts and at inquiries: When there are cases before Canadian courts that bring up issues of fundamental human rights, Amnesty International frequently appears before the court as in intervener. Interveners (in other countries, amicus curiae) are individuals or organizations that courts invite to bring a different perspective on the issues presented by the parties to the litigation. Having these different perspectives from interveners who are experts on particular topics helps the courts make informed judgments in the cases they have to decide. On occasion, but less frequently, Amnesty International has stood as the actual applicant in a case, initiating the legal proceedings. That has always been in partnership with other organizations. The Supreme Court of Canada has stated that Canadian laws must be interpreted and applied consistently with international human rights norms that Canada has committed to respecting, protecting, and promoting. Amnesty International often appears before courts in important human rights cases to ensure that the courts hear and consider international human rights law when making their judgments.
- Legal analysis of government bills, including submissions to Parliamentary Committees on proposed new laws: When new bills are proposed in the Canadian Parliament, they go through several readings and studies by various committees of the House of Commons and the Senate to ensure they are constitutional and effective in achieving their purpose. Amnesty International often provides written and oral legal submissions to House and Senate Committees on bills affecting the human rights of people in Canada. Our submissions raise concerns where bills appear to contravene international human rights law, and make recommendations on how new laws can be made consistent with Canada’s international obligations. In cases where Amnesty International is not offered time to provide formal submissions to Parliamentary Committees, we often still conduct and publish legal analysis of the bills’ compliance with international human rights standards.
- Providing submissions to United Nations Committees and at other international fora: A member of the United Nations and a State Party to many foundational human rights instruments, Canada is also accountable to the global community. Canada regularly appears before United Nations Committees to report on its human rights record and receive recommendations on how to improve. Canada has also ratified some treaties giving rise to individual complaints mechanisms. These mechanisms are international adjudicative bodies where individuals can bring complaints of human rights violations against States Parties. Finally, every four years, Canada is held accountable for its human rights record by other states through the Universal Periodic Review. Amnesty International regularly provides legal submissions at all these levels, bringing an important and impartial civil society perspective to ensure Canada is held accountable to its international human rights obligations.