On 10 November 2023, a delegation from Canada will 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 specific human rights violations wherever they occur.
Universal Periodic Review Procedures
This is the fourth cycle of the UPR; the first cycle began in 2008. Every four and a half years, a report from each UN member state is reviewed through interactive dialogue between state representatives, members of the UNHRC working group and other UN member states. 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 this oral hearing, the UPR comprises a review of documents that include a national report drafted by the state being reviewed and a compilation produced by the United Nations (UN) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which contains a summary of the reports prepared by UN human rights treaty bodies, independent experts mandated by the UN to report on human rights, and other UN entities. In addition, the OHCHR prepares a summary of briefs by national human rights institutions and NGOs for consideration during the review. States are strongly encouraged to consult with NGOs and national human rights institutions 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, the UNHRC working group prepares its conclusions and/or recommendations. The state under review then submits its response indicating which of the recommendations it agrees to work on and which of them it declines to do so. In subsequent cycles, observers and the UNHRC working group look for evidence of what the state has undertaken to address the previously accepted recommendations.
A Forum for Reviewing Human Rights Progress
Created to be a key feature of the UNHRC, the UPR was established in 2006 to replace and de‑politicize the earlier process – considered more subjective – by which the former UN Commission on Human Rights selected matters for review. Proponents of the new forum 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 it has criticized in the past for human rights violations.
Some observers express concern that the UPR remains a politicized process, claiming that its format allows states to both gloss over or deny pressing human rights issues and support allies through undue praise or vague recommendations. Nevertheless, the UPR has 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 robust or possible.
Canada and the Universal Periodic Review
In preparation for Canada’s review, representatives from Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments collaborate to prepare Canada’s oral and written submissions. Canada’s constitutional division of powers makes provincial and territorial governments key players in the implementation of human rights obligations that stem from the international agreements the federal government has ratified. In some cases, Canada’s 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 from other states concerned issues related to Indigenous peoples. Other themes included the need for Canada to better address the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children, the rights of refugees and migrants, and poverty and housing. Issues affecting Indigenous peoples remained a significant theme in Canada’s second and third UPRs, in 2013 and 2018 respectively. Other important themes included gender equality and gender-based violence, racial discrimination, access to housing and Canada’s immigration detention system.
During the first three cycles of the UPR, a substantial proportion of the recommendations called on Canada to accede to international human rights treaties, such as the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or to adopt implementation action plans, such as for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Following its participation in the third cycle of the UPR in 2018, Canada submitted a written response in which it accepted, either in full or in part, 208 out of the 275 recommendations received from other countries.
Two parliamentary committees – one Senate committee and one House of Commons subcommittee – studied Canada’s participation in 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 cycle of the UPR.
In December 2017, the Government of Canada tasked the Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights (CCOHR), which facilitates stakeholder engagement, with developing a protocol for following up on the recommendations that Canada receives from international human rights bodies, including the UPR working group, as well as an engagement strategy on international human rights reporting, to facilitate the full participation of federal, provincial and territorial governments in this process.
Since 2020, the work of the CCOHR has been complemented by that of the Forum of Federal, Provincial and Territorial Ministers for Human Rights (FMHR). The FMHR has committed to meeting bi‑annually to discuss key human rights priorities. In addition, the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Senior Officials Committee Responsible for Human Rights (SOCHR), composed of officials at the Assistant Deputy Minister level, was created to enhance high-level federal, provincial and territorial collaboration on human rights. The SOCHR supervises the CCOHR and can advise ministers. The SOCHR can also ensure follow‑ups of ministerial decisions and reviews of human rights issues raised by international human rights bodies or civil society organizations and Indigenous organizations. It can provide direction on priorities for discussion between and within governments.
Preparing for the Fourth Cycle of the Universal Periodic Review
In preparation for the fourth cycle of the UPR, various civil society organizations, Indigenous partners and human rights commissions were consulted on a draft of Canada’s national report. In June 2023, the FMHR held a meeting to discuss the progress made since 2018 and the key priorities in relation to Canada’s human rights obligations, in preparation for Canada’s appearance at the fourth cycle of the UPR. The meeting report includes references to current and emerging human rights issues in Canada, such as human rights in the digital age, the protection of children from online harm and concerns about increased online hate and racism. An engagement meeting with stakeholders took place prior to the ministerial meeting.
Canada’s national report to the UN, submitted in September 2023, focuses on such issues as: the accession to and ratification of international human rights instruments; the rights of Indigenous peoples; education and employment; poverty, housing and food security; advancing gender equality; diversity and inclusion; the rights of older persons; public safety and law enforcement; and climate change. Selected examples of measures adopted by federal, provincial and territorial governments are included, as well as two annexes, one that outlines the 2018 recommendations, and one that summarizes the stakeholder feedback. Canada’s report also includes contributions by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which is Canada’s national human rights institution.
The report of the OHCHR on Canada is accompanied by multiple documents that describe Canada’s international obligations under international human rights law, with references to reports and recommendations by UN human rights mechanisms and experts, and summarising stakeholder submissions. The report of the OHCHR summarizes 64 stakeholder submissions, including from international and national organizations and provincial human rights institutions, and from academic and Indigenous organizations. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe sent submissions as well.
Bachelet, Michelle, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Letter from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2 November 2018.
Government of Canada. Universal Periodic Review.
Government of Canada. Canada’s Response to Recommendations: Third Universal Periodic Review, 2019.
House of Commons, Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, Subcommittee on International Human Rights. Canada’s Universal Periodic Review and Beyond – Upholding Canada’s International Reputation as a Global Leader in the Field of Human Rights, Second report, November 2010.
Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights. Canada and the United Nations Human Rights Council: Charting a new course, June 2010.
United Nations Human Rights Council. Basic facts about the UPR.
United Nations Human Rights Council. Universal Periodic Review – Canada.
United Nations Human Rights Council. UPR of Canada (3rd Cycle – 30th session): Thematic list of recommendations.
United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Canada.
By Karine Azoulay, Fotini-Hellas Diamandis, Miek van Gaalen and Julian Walker, Library of Parliament