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Common Causes: Human rights policies eroding under Harper government

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Common Causes is an assembly of social movements dedicated to defending democracy, social justice, the environment and human rights in the face of an all-out assault by the Harper government. Throughout the week, we will be publishing extracts from Maude Barlow's report on the goals and aims of Common Causes. For an overview, see this article or check out our special rabble.ca Common Causes page

Through a wide variety of initiatives, policies and positions at both national and international levels, Canada's traditional reputation as a human rights leader has eroded. The speed at which decades of human rights leadership has come undone has been dizzying.

First Nations are betrayed

While no one is laying blame for the chronic conditions of poverty and poor living standards of First Nations communities on the doorstep of one party or government, the Harper government abandoned the 2006 Kelowna Accord and with it, a whole host of programs to address issues of aboriginal health, addictions, youth suicide, fetal alcohol syndrome, maternal health and child care, and others. 

As well, in the omnibus bills, the government has dramatically undermined the safety, sovereignty and security of First Nations. The gutting of environmental protections is of particular concern to First Nations as many of the current and proposed new energy and mining projects -- now released from environmental oversight by the Harper government -- take place on Indigenous lands. These changes were made without consultation with First Nations, despite their court-recognized treaty right. This also violates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which guarantees “free, prior and informed consent” in any matter that touches on resource development on Aboriginal lands. Another bill imposes strict new rules on drinking water provision without accompanying funding, and permits the government to enforce user fees. The Harper government is also proposing to allow the sale of reserve property to non-Indigenous buyers, forever losing them as community lands. The outrage of the First Nations community to the imposition of these new laws has been swift and strong.

Refugees are targeted

Bill C-31 has changed Canada's refugee determination system in a way that creates a two-tier system of refugee protection, which is vulnerable to political whims, rather than ensuring a fair and independent decision-making process. The bill gives the immigration minister enormous powers to imprison refugee claimants, to deny refugees the ability to reunite with family members and to strip them of secure legal status. Amnesty International says the concentration of enormous and vaguely-defined powers at the political level, with no mechanism for judicial accountability, displays a dangerous inclination away from the rule of law. Bill C-31 does not take into account the realities of the most vulnerable, such as survivors of torture and sexual violence, and blatantly violates the UN Refugee Convention and other international rights instruments. The law denies refugee claimants from specific countries (some of which have records of systemic human rights violations) from appealing a negative decision. Furthermore, cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program have deprived claimants of basic and emergency health care, a move that fron- line health care workers call cruel and inhumane.

Human rights at home are weakened

Harper's years in power have been marked by relentless moves to weaken critical human rights infrastructure and aggressive opposition to steps to strengthen human rights protections. Oversight bodies, which play an important role in safeguarding human rights, are being dismantled. These include the CSIS Inspector General and the Military Police Complaints Commission. The Harper government firmly opposed a bill that would have established a legal framework to oversee the human rights impacts of Canadian mining companies in their operations overseas. Contempt for human rights obligations has been carried into court as well. The Harper government spent millions of dollars in aggressive and obstructive litigation with respect to Afghan prisoner transfers rather than taking steps to address an obvious and serious human rights concern. And the government’s position in the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society case dealing with discrimination in the area of First Nations child protection strips any meaning from human rights guarantees for on-reserve communities. Bill C-10, an omnibus crime bill that includes stiffer penalties for youth and makes it easier to try them as adults, means that Canada no longer conforms to the child rights convention or other international standards, according to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

International human rights obligations are abandoned

The Harper government has shown outright contempt for binding international human rights norms. There are a growing number of international human rights treaties that the government has failed to ratify, dealing with such fundamental issues as political disappearances, torture prevention and the provision of complaint mechanisms with respect to economic, social and cultural rights and the rights of disabled children.

The Harper government opposed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the General Assembly Resolution on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, and refused to co-sponsor UN General Assembly resolutions calling for a global moratorium on executions. It also refused to recognize the applicability of child soldier obligations in Omar Khadr's case.

As well, the Harper government has exhibited a stunning level of disrespect for UN human rights experts and officials, berating those who raised concerns about Canada’s record on Indigenous rights and the right to food. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was condemned by the Harper government for a brief reference she made in a UN speech criticizing Québec's former draconian law restricting freedom of assembly.

Canada softens its opposition to torture

Under the Harper government, Canada has reversed its long-standing policy against using information extracted under torture. The government directed CSIS, Canada's spy agency, as well as the RCMP and the federal border agency, that they can now use information that may have been obtained in this way in "exceptional circumstances" in order to mitigate a serious risk of loss of life, injury or substantial damage or destruction of property. This directive completely violates Canada's international obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture, which forswears the use of information obtained under torture, and which Canada ratified. Furthermore, the framework document says that the torture information-sharing principles apply to all federal agencies and the information gathered in this way can be shared with foreign government agencies, militaries, and international organizations. Rejecting information obtained by torture is one of the most important tools to stop this heinous crime. By openly changing the Government of Canada’s position on this issue, the Harper government has violated the most sacred of human rights obligations here at home and internationally.

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