By the early 2000s, it became increasingly evident that world’s primary human rights institution was no longer working. Established in the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights was a foundational institution that would serve the international community in facilitating new norms and standards for the protection and promotion of human rights. Despite achieving many crucial milestones over the decades, the commission would become increasingly politicized, resulting in a significant deterioration in its effectiveness and ability to improve outcomes. That states with abysmal human rights records were allowed to chair the commission and target opponent states, rendered the institution a mere instrument for carrying out self-interested political agendas. The credibility of the commission suffered considerably in the eyes of individuals, organizations and states truly concerned with improving human rights around the world.
In my role as former Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, my colleagues and I felt it was fundamental that Parliament review not only the performance of the new UN Human Rights Council, but the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process as well as Canada’s own recently-completed review, submitted by 69 UN Member States in 2009.
Our report, entitled “Canada and the United Nations Human Rights Council: Charting a New Course,” was informed by over two years of hearings and examinations into the new UNHRC and Canada’s involvement in the development of the institution as well as its own participation in the first round of UPRs. When our examination into the new Council began in 2007, the Government of Canada had already been in the process of preparing for its own review. The Committee wished to gain more insight into how the Government was participating and what consultation it was undertaking to fulfill its responsibilities under the new process. Between February 2007 and June 2009, we heard from over 60 individuals from the fields of law, academia, advocacy groups and the civil service. Their testimony provided the Committee with tremendous insight into both the new UNHRC and Canada’s obligations to the UPR process.
The Committee also intensively studied the results and recommendations of Canada’s first UPR. We found aspects of the review both reassuring and troubling. While Canada could be proud of having one of the world’s most solid human rights infrastructures, given our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, independent judicial system and human rights agencies, access to these institutions was far from even within our society, particularly for Aboriginal peoples and the homeless.
Overall, the report contained a total of 21 broad recommendations for how Canada could improve its participation within the existing and second round of UPRs (2012-2016) and act in its capacities to support this new institution as a whole. We called for the Government to create an office of the Canadian Ambassador for Human Rights, serving as our permanent representative to the UNHRC. The Committee also recommended that the Government undertake several initiatives to fully consult with and involve Parliament in its work with the UNHRC, rather than keeping the process solely within the purview of Cabinet. The involvement of provincial and territorial governments was also recommended in order to deliver coordinated submissions and responses to Canada’s international obligations.
Another key recommendation was that Canada “take immediate steps to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in a manner that is fully consistent with the Constitution of Canada and Canadian laws.” This recommendation would be implemented by the federal government in November of 2010. Crucially, the Committee also recommended that Canada should employ its experience and resources, both human and financial, to assist other countries in undertaking the process and implementing the final recommendations of their own UPRs. The central theme that ran through the majority of our recommendations was that the federal government must both quantitatively and qualitatively increase the level of its consultations with both domestic and international civil society when preparing for and carrying out its obligations, notably for the next round of UPRs. Our main assertion was that “the success of the Council depends very much on the success of the UPR; the success of the UPR depends very much on whether states like Canada can demonstrate that the review process works and they have accordingly improved their compliance with international human rights treaty obligations.”
In April 2013, Canada submitted and received its second UPR from the UNHRC, which contained an assessment of what had been done since the first UPR in 2009 and what still needed to be realized in order for Canada to meet its obligations. Canada’s second submission to the UNHRC can be found here, and a complete list of recommendations from Member States to Canada can be found here. The work to meet Canada’s international human rights obligations continues under this process with the third round beginning in 2017.