In his Sept. 23 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper outlined various reasons why Canada should be elected to the Security Council. He spoke of the importance of making a significant difference in the lives of the world’s most disadvantaged people. He encouraged enlightened sovereignty over narrow self-interest, as well as justice and human rights. He pledged to listen to others, speak the truth and, above all, be accountable.
If these are factors to consider in regard to aspiring Security Council members, then the Harper government is not faring well.
The Canadian government continues to opt for an ideological course that betrays core Canadian principles and values. This is especially evident in relation to the human rights of those most disadvantaged – the 370 million Indigenous people in over 70 countries.
Canada’s actions serve to undermine the international human rights system and the rule of law, which should alarm the collective conscience of Canadians.
1. Violations of the UN Charter.
Like all Member States, Canada is legally bound to uphold at all times the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. These include “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights ... for all without distinction” (art. 55 c).
Yet during the past four years, the government has opposed in diverse ways the human rights of the world’s Indigenous peoples. In September 2007, Canada voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the General Assembly despite overwhelming approval by States.
2. Constitutional duties violated.
In regard to the UN Declaration, the Canadian government has consistently failed to respect its constitutional duty to consult with Aboriginal peoples and accommodate their concerns (Constitution Act, 1982, s. 35). Such actions do not uphold the honor of the Crown or the rule of law.
3. Confidential strategy to oppose Indigenous rights.
The Canadian government has had a confidential strategy to undermine the human rights of the world’s Indigenous peoples that are affirmed in the Declaration. The multi-year strategy specified: “In the international arena, Canada will raise objections when the Declaration is referenced, and will encourage other States with concerns about the Declaration to make these known”. No other peoples in Canada are targeted in such a discriminatory and divisive manner.
4. Human Rights Council commitments not respected.
In seeking election to the Human Rights Council in 2006, Canada accepted the commitments required by the General Assembly to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “fully cooperate with the Council”. Yet in regard to Indigenous peoples’ human rights and the UN Declaration, Canada pursued the lowest standards of any Council member within the Western European group of States.
5. Collaboration with abusive States.
In opposing the human rights of Indigenous peoples globally, the government worked together with States – such as Colombia, Russian Federation and Suriname – that commit torture, rape, forced disappearances or extrajudicial killings. According to a 2007 report of Amnesty International, “Canada aligned itself with states with poor records of supporting the UN human rights system and with histories of brutal repression of Indigenous rights advocates.”
6. Lobbying African States against Indigenous rights.
African States generally face huge human rights challenges. While the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was promoting the adoption of the Declaration among African States, Canada was encouraging non-support. Former President of the Human Rights Council Luis De Alba later confirmed in a 2009 book on the Declaration: “New Zealand and Canada were very active in opposing the Declaration, particularly within the African Group.”
7. Misinforming the Canadian public.
At the time of the vote at the General Assembly, Canada’s Indian Affairs Minister claimed that the Declaration contains only collective rights and not individual rights. In fact, there are 17 provisions that address individual rights. The minister also stated that the Declaration fails to balance collective and individual rights – even though it contains some of the most comprehensive balancing provisions of any international human rights instrument.
8. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
In the negotiations of the Nagoya Protocol on “fair and equitable sharing of the benefits” from the use of genetic resources, Canada joined with others in reinforcing State control over resources at the expense of Indigenous rights. Contrary to the UN Declaration, cooperation and partnership with Indigenous peoples are largely absent. Such self-serving actions serve to exacerbate poverty and biopiracy – the unauthorized taking of resources from Indigenous lands.
9. Narrow self-interest trumps biodiversity and human rights.
The world’s States have failed to meet 2010 targets relating to biodiversity. Yet in regard to the CBD’s Nagoya Protocol, Canada and others are excessively reinforcing State sovereignty and discretion to the detriment of biodiversity objectives. This makes future compliance difficult. States, including Canada, have exploited the consensus procedure, in a manner that undermines the UN Declaration and Indigenous peoples’ human rights. In so doing, States exceeded their authority under the CBD and the Charter of the United Nations.
10. Regressive positions on climate change.
Climate change poses one of the most significant threats to biodiversity. Canada continues to take sub-standard positions on climate change. Indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable to suffer its far-reaching impacts. In December 2008, at the world talks in Poland, Canada’s Environment Minister claimed that the UN Declaration “has nothing whatsoever to do with climate change”.
11. Actions inconsistent with justice and reconciliation.
In his apology, the Prime Minister recognized that the policies of assimilation in residential schools — such as “to kill the Indian in the child” — were wrong and “had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.” Yet, in regard to the UN Declaration, the Harper government proposed amendments to delete the right of Indigenous peoples to “control” and “protect” their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.
12. Canada’s endorsement of UN Declaration.
The November 12th endorsement lacks credibility. For years, the government has been eroding Indigenous peoples’ rights and the Declaration. The endorsement claims that the Declaration is an “aspirational document.” Yet States, courts and UN treaty bodies are increasingly relying upon this human rights instrument to interpret Indigenous rights and related State obligations. The Indian Affairs department explains that Canada is endorsing the Declaration in a manner that is “fully consistent with Canada’s Constitution and laws”.
This serves to perpetuate the status quo and create a double standard.
13. No accountability for unlawful actions.
Since 2006, the Canadian government has been violating its obligations in the Canadian Constitution and international law with impunity. It has encouraged States with abusive human rights records to not support the Declaration. It has devoted more human and financial resources to such prejudicial actions than any other country. Yet the government consistently refuses to account for its conduct or monies spent.
Over 100 scholars and experts in Canada cautioned in May 2008 that the government was not providing any credible legal rationale to substantiate its extraordinary and erroneous claims about the Declaration. The government ignored their explicit concerns that such claims were being used to “impede international cooperation and implementation of this human rights instrument”.
Many reasons have been cited for Canada’s failure to land a seat on the Security Council. Government actions to undermine Indigenous peoples’ human rights are surely among them.
Security Council members should unequivocally uphold the UN Charter and international human rights for all. The dignity, security and well-being of Indigenous peoples are equally important as those of others worldwide.
The column was Co-authored by the following:
Grand Chief Ed John, the North American representative to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Matthew Coon Come, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee), Warren Allmand, P.C., O.C., QC, former minister of Indian Affairs and former president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, currently teaching international human rights at McGill University, and Paul Joffe, international human rights lawyer.