In March, the federal Liberals and NDP entered into a Supply and Confidence Agreement, Delivering for Canadians Now. The NDP has pledged support for the Liberal minority government through to 2025 in return for promised progress on several important public policy files, including national dental and pharmacare programs, reconciliation, the climate crisis, and affordable housing.
While it focuses on laudable goals, the deal is not explicitly anchored in human rights. Also absent are commitments to address the sorry state of world affairs. That too circles back to human rights.
Perhaps it is not too late? A Human Rights Addendum to the Liberal/NDP agreement would be very welcome.
Using the pandemic as our calendar, these past two years have by no means been particularly hope-filled, nationally or globally. On the contrary, despite remarkable reservoirs of resilience and courage in communities everywhere, descriptions that come immediately to mind are turmoil, injustice, divisive, violent, racist, calamitous and fearful.
It has been the time of COVID-19 and its vast and inequitable health and economic ramifications, the unrelenting march of the global climate crisis and devastating weather events, reckoning concerning residential schools, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and systemic racism, cruel assaults on refugee protection, and toxic polarization in politics fueled by misinformation and lies.
Underlying these challenges and catastrophes lies a common theme: human rights failure.
Surely we can see the human rights truths that have been unmasked by COVID, the odious layers of discrimination and exploitation that have spurred the virus on. Surely we understand that all of the years of denial and, worse, complicity as Vladimir Putin’s contempt for human rights spiralled without consequence has exploded into a nightmare for Ukraine and instability for the rest of the world.
Measures needed to embed respect for human rights across society to prevent such crises have been largely ignored. Steps to enforce human rights obligations and hold nations, individuals and corporations accountable for violations and abuses have generally been rejected. Meaningful reforms to make our vaunted rules-based order about human rights have not garnered support. At every turn, double standards and hypocrisy have prevailed.
There is no more obvious time for governments everywhere, including Ottawa, to commit to a new path guided by a bold human rights agenda. That means measurable and concrete action rather than the flowery rhetoric and disingenuous hand wringing that have become too commonplace.
Coming back to the Liberal/NDP agreement, a mixture of human rights initiatives, big and small, would be timely. Here are five suggestions to start the ball rolling.
First, we have just marked the 40th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There has been much celebration, rightly so, of all that the Charter has achieved. Reflection as well on its shortcomings. With little appetite to embark on the fraught path of constitutional reform, are there ways to give the Charter and human rights laws more generally a boost?
Legislation to prohibit the federal government from using the Charter’s notorious notwithstanding clause, even if mainly symbolic, would be well-placed as would changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act to finally add “social condition” as a prohibited ground of discrimination and open up direct access to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
Next, we need a genuinely national embrace of human rights. Federal, provincial and territorial governments have yet to rise to the challenge of collaboratively ensuring effective implementation of Canada’s international human rights obligations across the country. In 2020 they agreed to establish a Forum of Ministers on Human Rights. What is needed now is leadership to bring this new Forum to life.
Third, for a professed global human rights champion, Canada’s record of ratifying critical human rights treaties within the United Nations and Organization of American States is, at best, lacklustre. Despite numerous promises to consider doing so, the top of that list is our failure to join the UN’s 20-year-old torture prevention treaty, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. That must happen without further delay.
Fourth, Canada has not been a member of the UN’s Human Rights Council, from which Russia was just expelled, since 2009. We should prepare to stand, at an early date, for election to the world’s most important human rights body and work to shore up the Council at this critical juncture for human rights globally.
Finally, we need a plan. Human rights are consistently highlighted as integral to Canada’s foreign policy. But what does that mean in practice? How can that assertion coexist with a willingness to sell armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia while that country’s security forces commit war crimes in Yemen or reluctance to call out the Israeli government for apartheid and war crimes? Are human rights truly integral if the Safe Third Country Agreement continues to restrict access to refugee protection at the Canada/US border or the new Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise is denied promised powers to conduct independent investigations into human rights abuses linked to the overseas operations of Canadian mining companies?
Other nations, including New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland, have adopted guidelines, strategies, and action plans to back up their commitment to international human rights. Canada has taken steps in that direction with human rights defenders guidelines, a national action plan on women, peace and security, and the country’s feminist international assistance policy. But a comprehensive approach is lacking and could make an enormous difference.
We have long needed a well-crafted international human rights action plan grounded in empowerment, intersectional feminism, accountability and consistency. Now is the time to put one in place.