Canada’s Third Universal Periodic Review Before the United Nations Human Rights Council

(Disponible en français : Troisième examen périodique universel du Canada devant le Conseil des droits de l’homme des Nations Unies)

On 11 May, Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General will lead a delegation of senior federal civil servants and representatives from the governments of Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador to appear before a working group of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The delegation will report on how Canada is meeting its international human rights obligations. This process, known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), is an important opportunity for UN member states to hold each other to account, with the goal of improving the human rights situation across all countries and addressing human rights violations wherever they occur. Civil society also takes an active role throughout the process.

Universal Periodic Review procedures

This is the third cycle of the UPR, which began in 2008. Every four and a half years, each UN member state is reviewed through an interactive dialogue between state representatives, members of the UNHRC working group, and other UN member states. The session lasts three and a half hours. Subject to time constraints, every UN member state can ask questions, make comments, and present recommendations to the state under review. Other stakeholders, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), national human rights institutions, Indigenous organizations and UN agencies may attend, but may not speak.

In addition to the oral hearing, the UPR includes a review of written documents, including a national report drafted by the state under review, and a compilation produced by the UNHCR summarizing reports of UN human rights treaty bodies, independent experts mandated by the UN to report on human rights, and other UN entities. National human rights institutions and NGOs, large and small, submit briefs of their own, which are also summarized and considered. States are also strongly encouraged to consult with NGOs as they prepare their submissions. Stakeholder participation is meant to expand the scope of the issues covered and promote more public engagement.

Following the UPR, recommendations are included in the UNHRC working group’s concluding observations. The state under review then submits a response stating which recommendations it agrees to work on and which it declines. In subsequent cycles, observers and the UNHRC working group look for evidence of what the state has done to act on the recommendations it has accepted.

A forum for reviewing human rights progress

Created to be a key feature of the UNHRC, the UPR was established in 2006 in order to replace and depoliticize the more subjective process by which the former UN Commission on Human Rights selected matters for review. Proponents hoped it would be a more equal and universally applied mechanism for regular, consistent, fair and impartial examination of human rights issues. The reciprocity inherent in the UPR means that Canada may face strong criticism from states that Canada has criticized in the past for human rights violations.

Some observers express concern that the UPR remains a politicized process, claiming that the format of the UPR allows states the freedom to gloss over or deny pressing human rights issues, and support allies through undue praise or vague recommendations. Nevertheless, the UPR has also been characterized as a useful tool for promoting accountability and stimulating national debate about human rights issues, especially for countries where such political dialogue is not otherwise robust or even possible.

Canada and the Universal Periodic Review

In preparation for Canada’s review, representatives from federal, provincial and territorial governments collaborate to prepare Canada’s oral and written submissions, facilitated by the Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights. Canada’s constitutional division of powers makes provincial and territorial governments key players in the implementation of human rights obligations emanating from international agreements ratified by the federal government. In some cases, the national report will highlight specific provincial or territorial schemes as evidence that human rights obligations are being met.

In Canada’s first UPR in 2009, a significant proportion of comments and recommendations made by other states concerned issues affecting Indigenous peoples. Other themes included the need for Canada to better address sexual exploitation and trafficking of children, the rights of refugees and migrants, as well as poverty and housing. Issues affecting Indigenous peoples remained a significant theme during Canada’s second UPR in 2013. Other important themes included the rights of women and children, racial discrimination, and detention.

During both cycles of the UPR, a substantial proportion of recommendations called on Canada to accede to international human rights treaties, such as the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, or to adopt implementation action plans, such as in the case of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Two parliamentary committees—one House of Commons committee and one Senate committee—studied the 2009 UPR. Both committees determined that Canada’s preparations had lacked clarity and transparency and that the system for implementing Canada’s human rights obligations needed improvement. Both called for better engagement with civil society, parliamentarians and the Canadian public in preparing for the next UPR.

Preparing for the Third Cycle of the Universal Periodic Review

In preparation for the third cycle of the UPR, over 280 civil society organizations—including indigenous organizations—were consulted on a draft outline of Canada’s national report. The draft outline was circulated in January 2018, and a two-day conference was held in late March 2018.

Canada submitted its national report and related annexes after the March conference. Written comments from a national Indigenous organization and 15 civil society organizations were summarized in the national report’s Annex. The national report focuses on the rights of Indigenous peoples; advancing gender equality; racism, discrimination and inclusion; public safety and criminal justice; and economic and social rights. The report also discusses efforts to advance human rights internationally. Finally, the report addresses recommendations made as a result of the second UPR, and indicates whether a recommendation is accepted, and how it is being implemented.

Over 45 stakeholder submissions have been received by the UNHRC, from stakeholders including local single-issue community groups to organizations such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe.

Canada’s response to the outcome of the UPR is expected in August 2018.

Related Resources

Authors: Karine Azoulay and Julian Walker, Library of Parliament