Monday, July 9, 2018

IHRP panel

(L) Samer Muscati, Director, International Human Rights Program; Shalini Konanur, Executive Director, South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO); Amanda Dale, Executive Director, Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic; Angela Wong, Staff Lawyer, Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic (CSALC); and Monette Maillet, Director General, Canadian Human Rights Commission.


By Jenny Mao, 3L

On May 22nd, following Canada’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the UN, the Faculty of Law's International Human Rights Program hosted a panel on the nation’s international human rights law record featuring four racial justice advocates who had participated in the process. Shalini Konanur of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, Angela Wong of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, Amanda Dale of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, and Monette Maillet of the Canadian Human Rights Commission spoke about their involvement in the UPR and discussed the relationship between international and domestic advocacy, and how civil society organizations can most effectively act internationally to push a domestically-focused agenda. As part of the UPR, a member state submits a written report on its human rights situation and responds to questions and recommendations put forward by other member states before the UN Human Rights Council. The four panelists made crucial contributions to this process by providing written submissions, participating in consultations with other governments, and presenting briefs to pressure Canada to accept states’ recommendations and honour its commitments.

While some of the panelists were not initially familiar with the UPR process, they all reaffirmed its accessibility for advocates interested in participating. As a group, the panelists created a detailed submission that focused on the discriminatory impacts of Canadian federal law on race, equity, and racial justice in a variety of areas such as immigration and employment. The advocates also stressed the importance of speaking to other states and ensuring that they carried forward a message for Canada that was reflected in their questions. One particular difficulty in doing so came from the time constraints; since states were given less than two minutes to make recommendations, the advocates felt they needed to narrow down their issues and succinctly and effectively present that information. Another problem was overcoming states’ assumptions that Canada has a good human rights record due to preconceptions surrounding the current Trudeau government. The civil society representatives needed to convince these states that Canada still has a variety of human rights issues to work on, such as immigration detention or its treatment of Indigenous people in its criminal justice system. In particular, Maillet, who had participated in Canada’ two previous UPRs, recognized that the same recommendations had been repeatedly made, indicating that several serious human rights issues had not changed or progressed.

One particular criticism the panelists had focused on was the domestic structure for implementing international human rights obligations, and how it is inadequate and ineffective in practice. Here, the lack of a truly coordinated, responsive and transparent approach, which also does not fully include civil society organizations, racialized groups or Indigenous groups, means it does not fully address these concerns. In many instances of consultations between the state and civil society organizations, only the same small group of advocates was invited, and not all racialized groups had a voice.

In particular, Monette Maillet, of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and who had participated in Canada’ two previous UPRs, recognized that the same recommendations had been repeatedly made, indicating that several serious human rights issues had not changed or progressed.

An especially important lesson learnt by the advocates was the usefulness of informal meetings, where most of the substantive lobbying and advocacy actually occurred. Rather than submissions or presentations, the panelists found that conversations were where they could speak directly to diplomats to pass on their messages and recommendations. The advocates also stressed the importance of clarity during these short meetings, and ensuring that the states understood the nature of the human rights issue, what the advocates are asking for, and what they would like to see in the recommendations. Relatedly, they also needed to consider what states were saying to each other, and how certain states with similar or worse human rights issues as Canada would be motivated to not publicly criticize Canada’s human rights record. Thus, it was important to target states that had less at stake or are more interested in addressing certain issues. Furthermore, as the panelists learned after the fact, advocacy groups can also engage with these countries’ embassies in Canada ahead of time, and make direct requests to their offices in Geneva.

Domestically, it is also important to ensure the government meaningfully interacts and engages with a wide variety of civil society organizations and advocates. This can not only be highlighted through submissions that focus on racial justice and equity, but also by making the UPR process more accessible to other groups. Having participated in the UPR, the panelists all expressed their desire to reach out to other groups across Canada and help them better understand how to engage in the process. These efforts will create a foundation to collaborate in the future and build a greater capacity for advocacy work. By forming a coalition and distributing their work, these groups will have a stronger and more inclusive voice in the international human rights system.

Overall, the panelists affirmed that advocacy in the international human rights context could be better reflected and applied at home. Through the states’ recommendations, the advocates saw how they were able to push a certain national strategy through international law, and that there was a direct link between the international pressure they put on Canada and their domestic advocacy goals. Through this process, there is also an opportunity to further collaborate, both with other nations facing the same issues, as well as with other NGOs and civil society organizations. International work naturally affects domestic policies: when Canada accepts specific recommendations such a targeted action plan, they have affirmed its importance and the need to implement it. Afterwards, the government will need to create concrete steps to develop the plan. As such, the international process can spur domestic policy and legislative development by setting out the broad acceptance of general recommendations, through which Canada recognizes specific human rights issues and can later work with civil society organizations when proceeding with logistics. By utilizing the international human rights system, process, and frameworks and thinking of how they relate back domestically, advocates can push their work further and more substantively by following up to challenge the government on their obligations when they are not being met.