OTTAWA — The United Nations human-rights chief says Canada can boost its chances of joining the council that monitors freedom around the world by better following up on the pledges it makes at home and abroad.
“When you think of Canada, you think of human rights,” said Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a Tuesday interview.
Türk visited Ottawa this week to touch base on human-rights issues in general, including how they are handled in Canada and how Ottawa can best address issues abroad.
His visit comes as Canada campaigns to join the UN Human Rights Council for a term spanning from 2028 to 2030. That body will undertake an in-depth review of the human-rights situation in Canada next month, as part of an exercise applied to most countries every four years.
Türk said the Canadian government should consider not relying on the four-year review, and instead do its own annual or biannual exercises to take stock of how Canada is doing.
“It is important that the various recommendations that came from these various processes are obviously implemented and followed up on. And that’s always a constant call from us,” he said.
For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools presented its 94 calls to action to rectify what it called cultural genocide in June 2015.
But it took the Liberals seven years to table legislation to create an official body to monitor progress on those items, and the bill for a national council is still under study.
Türk said that no country is perfect, and he said it’s a good thing that Canadians often discuss where they are falling short. He said that this largely applies to its approach with Indigenous Peoples.
He praised Ottawa and the provinces for coming up with action plans, but said they need to actually be followed.
“You can have an open discussion about the challenges that also Canadians face,” he said. “I wish that other countries would take the cue from that.”
Türk also said Canadians would benefit from seeing the current debate around housing affordability as a human-rights issue. He said many industrialized countries have seen a rise in homelessness since the COVID-19 pandemic, made worse by corporations using homes as financial assets.
“There is an a human right to adequate housing. What we have seen is it being thrown into the capitalist market system,” he said.
“There’s a strong financialization of it, with many people making a lot of money as a result — but at the expense of vulnerable populations, of those who are poorer, those who are marginalized.”
Türk said that abroad, Canada is seen as a leader in pushing back against gender inequality, supporting LGBTQ+ people and suggesting that other countries with Indigenous populations resist the mistakes and oppression that Canada has perpetrated over the decades.
Yet the foreign-aid advocacy group Bigger Than Our Borders notes that Canada’s funding for human-rights groups abroad has been on the decline, as part of a broader cut in development assistance.
Still, Türk said Canada has been a force for advancing rights around the world.
He noted that Canada was the first country to approach him in February after his visit to Haiti, asking how Ottawa can help end a chaotic situation where brazen gangs control access to essential goods and perpetuate sexual violence.
“We have essentially an anarchic situation, and that’s very dangerous,” he said, noting the situation has further eroded in recent months.
Türk said he was encouraged by Canada’s moves to sanction elites and to help Haiti rebuild its just system.
But he said countries should be more vocal about restricting guns — particularly American firearms — from reaching gangsters in Haiti, who are better equipped than police.
“It’s critical that that arms embargo is not just pronounced, but also enforced,” he said.
“Some people make a lot of money by selling these arms and finding ways, despite the arms embargo, to still bring them to Haiti.”
With Israel and Hamas at war in the Middle East, Türk also said he hopes Canada will continue doing what it can to advocate against a wider conflict in the region.
“We’re worried about the West Bank and we’re worried about Lebanon. The world cannot afford this powder keg to explode. That’s clear,” he said.
He added that it’s crucial that his United Nations agency be allowed to respond to the “extremely precarious humanitarian situation” in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, as the territory remains closed off at its borders with Israel and Egypt.
“We have trucks that are four kilometres long on the Egyptian side. And these trucks have to go in. We hope that they will go in soon.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2023.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press