An assessment of Canada’s record on human rights and democratic values at the United Nations Human Rights Council and the General Assembly A Report by UN Watch
February 26, 2007
The Report in PDF Form
Human rights at the United Nations is everywhere under assault. At the newly created Human Rights Council in Geneva, and at the General Assembly in New York, an increasingly brazen alliance of repressive regimes is not only spoiling needed reform but undermining the few meaningful mechanisms of UN human rights protection that already exist. Impunity for systematic abuses is their goal. Amid all of this, where does Canada stand?
This report, presented today to members of the Parliament of Canada, shows that Canada ranks at the very top—in both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly—for its record of consistent support for positive initiatives, and solid opposition to malicious measures. The data also shows, however, that Canada falls short in its failure to speak out often or strongly enough for victims of most of the world’s worst regimes.
The study offers a meaningful evaluation of Canada’s actions by comparing them with those of other countries on a selection of votes considered the most significant by Council stakeholders. These include most prominently the “name and shame” resolutions, where a handful of the UN’s 192 countries are singled out for censure, along with other resolutions that touch on bedrock democratic principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At the 47-nation Council, inaugurated in June to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, there have been only 10 resolutions addressing specific countries: eight harsh condemnations of Israel, and two soft, non-condemnatory resolutions on Sudan. Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan repeatedly urged Council members not to obsessively focus on censuring Israel in a partial manner. Heeding these words, Canada stood shoulder to shoulder with the major democracies in protesting the one-sided special sessions against Israel that marked the first months of the Council, and the resolutions that granted impunity to Hamas and Hezbollah attacks. In certain cases, Canada took the lead in upholding the Council’s principles of objectivity, impartiality and non-selectivity.
On Darfur, Canada was at the forefront of a minority democratic bloc of 11 countries that demanded strong actions and a special session for the victims of Darfur. Regrettably, to win a majority, the resulting resolution had to be negotiated with Sudan and its powerful allies, and wound up applauding the Khartoum regime for its “cooperation.” The Council did create a team to visit and assess the situation in Darfur, but Sudan has now reneged on admitting the monitors.
Other indicative votes at the Council included that on an Algerian-sponsored initiative to impose a “code of conduct” on the 41 independent rights monitors. Canada was in the minority that strongly defended the experts, most of whom do excellent work. Canada also joined other democracies in resisting repeated attempts by the Islamic group to curb freedom of speech principles at the UN by prohibiting the media and others from “defamation of religions and prophets”—a thinly veiled reference to the controversy over the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.
At the General Assembly, Canada’s support for human rights and democracy issues was on a par with the other major democracies. It led the resolution that held Iran to account for its policies of torture, arbitrary arrest and repression. Canada also joined other democracies in citing major abuses in Belarus, Burma, and North Korea, and in supporting the failed attempt to censure Uzbekistan.
While Canada voted correctly on all of these, it failed to take the floor when the situations in Belarus and North Korea were debated. Atmospherics influence country attitudes—something the repressive regimes have internalized far better than the democracies.
What is perhaps most revealing is the report’s analysis of what Canada has done for victims of the most repressive regimes. Looking at the latest list of 19 as compiled by Freedom House, Canada did nothing for 13 of them.
Canada took no action whatsoever at the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly against China’s violations of civil, political and religious rights—which harm over a sixth of the world’s population. Canada was equally silent regarding Fidel Castro’s police state, where journalists languish in jail for daring to speak the truth. It said nothing about Saudi Arabia’s refusal to allow women to vote or drive a car, or its state-sponsored schoolbooks that teach children to hate Christians and other non-Muslims. Nor did it protest Robert Mugabe’s repression in Zimbabwe.
The horizon ahead offers imperatives as well as opportunities. First, Canada must commit itself to speaking out on far more situations of gross violations, and to do so more vigorously. Second, if it chooses to seize the moment, Canada can marshal the considerable respect it enjoys from both the European Union and the U.S. — which should be encouraged to join the Council — to forge a broader alliance in support of human rights, democracy, and peace. Free countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America should be called upon to vote on human rights issues at the UN based on their democratic values and not on regional-bloc and other group alliances. Canada has the potential to mobilize a democratic alliance that, with conviction, energy, and unity, can retake the initiative to ensure that the UN’s foremost human rights bodies live up to their promise.
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