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The 191 member states of the UN spoke loud and clear this week and we should heed their message: Canada is not living up to its historic reputation as a leader on human rights. With hard work and a bi-partisan approach, however, Canada can re-define its failed bid for a seat on the Security Council not as a loss but as an opportunity to recommit to its core values.
Despite the fact that Lester Pearson won his peace prize more than 50 years ago, Canadians are too prone to holding up our pioneering role as peacekeepers as evidence of leadership on human rights. This inflated sense of self resulted in Canada taking for granted a seat at the world’s most powerful roundtable, and is shameful in light of our recent track record on human rights. In its most recent review of Canada, the UN Human Rights Council recommended t this country ratify and adhere to a number of international human rights obligations. Even our historic ally, the U.K., has suggested that Canada cannot rely on federal and provincial division of powers as an excuse for failure to fulfill treatyobligations. Canada has drawn condemnation for its failure to uphold the rights of child soldiers detained abroad (Omar Khadr), recently voted against recognition of the right to water, has a dismal record on climate change, and has unnecessarily restricted the reproductive rights of women in developing countries. In this context, it is not surprising that many states could not bring themselves to support Canada’s bid for a seat on the Security Council.
While recognition of our failures is long overdue, we must also begin to chart a way forward. Canada is particularly well-poised to show global leadership on human rights in post-conflict situations and to “re-brand” ourselves as the go-to nation in the delicate transitional justice context. Our Charter of Rights is a template that is admired around the world, we have shown great leadership in terms of establishment of the International Criminal Court, and could play a key role in advancing the responsibility to protect as a core norm in international humanitarian law. University of Toronto Professor Sujit Choudhry’s recent appointment to the United Nations mediation roster and receipt of the Trudeau Fellowship for his work on post-conflict constitutional-making are examples of our tremendous potential for leadership and capacity-building on these issues.
It will be approximately a decade before Canada is next up for a seat at the world’s most powerful roundtable, which is plenty of time for us to revive our global “brand” as a neutral nation that not only adheres to but actively promotes international legal commitments in the areas of human rights, security, and environmental protection. Starting today, Canadians must demand that our elected representatives rise above divisive party politics and the current government’s preoccupation with domestic policy to regain our nation’s position as a nation worthy of the respect by our peers.
Renu Mandhane, Director, International Human Rights Program, University of Toronto Faculty of Law
Michael Da Silva and Lauren Rock, Faculty of Law Students