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The UN Shames Canada — Again — About the Same Human Rights Issues

The new report from the UN Human Rights Committee raises concerns about counter-terrorism legislation, missing and murdered indigenous women, and the behavior of mining companies abroad. Canada says it's "proud of our human rights record."

by Rachel Browne
Jul 24 2015, 4:23am

Photo by Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

The UN Human Rights Committee is shaming Canada for its human rights record, which hasn't improved much in the last decade.

On Thursday, the committee released its first review of Canada in 10 years — and the first ever under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The findings claim that the government has failed on a host of issues ranging from missing and murdered Aboriginal women, its treatment of refugees, to its overly broad anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51.

The seven-page report comes after more than 26 human rights organizations submitted their concerns about Canada and provided testimony in front of the 18-person committee in Geneva earlier this month. The committee calls on the federal government to launch a national inquiry into the missing and murdered women, while making note of "persisting inequalities between men and women" in Canada, and asking the government to consider overturning Bill C-51.

The report is quick to point out that Canada has failed to create a way for its recommendations to be carried out at all. "The Committee regrets the lack of an appropriate mechanism in the State party to implement views of the committee," it says.

And what's striking about the 2015 report is how similar it is to the committee's last report on Canada that came out in 2006, when Liberal leader Paul Martin was in power.

"The State party should gather accurate statistical data throughout the country on violence against Aboriginal women, fully address the root causes of this phenomenon, including economic and social marginalization of Aboriginal women, and ensure their effective access to the justice system," the 2006 report said of the human rights situation at the time. Back then, the committee lambasted Canada for its overly broad Anti-Terrorism Act, which it said could be used to unfairly target people on political or religious grounds.

Ten years later, the committee is again criticizing Canada for its treatment of indigenous people, its counterterrorism measures, and excessive force used by police during protests.

"The Committee is concerned that indigenous women and girls are disproportionately affected by life-threatening forms of violence, homicides and disappearances," says the current report. This year, Canada's federal police said that more than 1,200 aboriginal women in Canada have either gone missing or been murdered since 1980.

Canada still has a long way to go on addressing its human rights concerns, according to Alexe Neve, secretary general for Amnesty International Canada.

"This committee and other UN experts have raised these issues previously with Canada, and that is an indictment of the fact that Canada does not have an effective system in place to ensure that UN-level recommendations are swiftly implemented," Neve told VICE News.

This time around, the committee also raises a slew of brand new concerns, which Neve says shows Canada is headed in the wrong direction.

This includes the way Canada deals with allegations of human rights abuses happening at Canadian-owned mines operating abroad, "in particular mining corporations and about the inaccessibility to remedies by victims of such violations," the report states.

VICE News recently reported on a lawsuit launched by workers at a Canadian-owned mine in Eritrea who claim that the mine's subcontractors are subjecting them to horrible working conditions and a slave-like schedule. In a UN report on human rights abuses in Eritrea, one witness described how workers there are "tied to a tree, hanging down" if they took a break from work.

At the committee hearings in Geneva, representatives for the Canadian government did not respond directly to the committee's concerns about human rights issues at its international mining ventures, but said that its human rights obligations do not extend to communities outside of Canada's borders.

Neve, who gave testimony at the hearings, said that the committee "has made it clear that Canada's obligations do extend outside the country and do include communities that are impacted by Canadian mining companies."

"It is incumbent on Canada to take action to ensure that all companies, including mining companies are held accountable for their human rights performance," he said.

The committee recommends Canada create an independent oversight mechanism to monitor what goes on at these mines more carefully and develop a way for people who have been victims of abuses to have legal remedies.

A spokesperson for the minister of foreign affairs told VICE News that "the review process before the Human Rights Committee provides an opportunity for States, like Canada, to engage in an open dialogue on actions taken to enhance human rights in our country. Canada is proud of our human rights record at home and abroad. We are not afraid to share our values on the world stage."

While the UN can't actually force Canada to implement any of its recommendations, the report is important because the government has to respond, in some way, in writing and it is a tool other countries and NGOs can use to criticize the country.

"This is still a statement from one of the most important UN human rights bodies, with detailed recommendations. So this cannot at all be casually dismissed by the government and while it doesn't have any immediate legal effects, that does not mean that we should view it as non-binding," Neve said. "We don't have a choice here, we have to act."

The UN committee has asked the Canadian federal government to submit an update report on its recommendations in five years, on top of another update due next year specifically about any action taken to address missing and murdered Aboriginal women. 

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne