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Dear Prime Minister Harper,

Canada has a celebrated and respected history as a leading advocate for human rights on the international stage. Unfortunately, in recent years, Canada's voice as a champion of these principles has become muted. In light of your re-election, we hope that you will work for this trend to be reversed.

Human Rights Watch conducts research on a number of human rights issues where Canada has an important role to play. In some instances, our research has documented a failure by Canada to defend adequately or to adhere to international standards.

We are concerned about the impact that Canada's record on these issues will have on the country and on the global human rights community. Below, we present our concerns and suggest steps that Canada and its parliament, with your leadership, should take to address them.

These issues are not an exhaustive list of the human rights concerns facing the Canada, but instead reflect areas studied by Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch strongly urges that these issues be made a priority during the next legislative session and that concrete solutions are pursued to help Canada improve its role as an advocate for fundamental human rights and its conduct as a responsible global citizen. We would welcome the opportunity to provide you and members of Parliament with additional information on our work, and to engage in discussion about how we might work together in the future to protect and promote fundamental human rights, both within Canada and abroad.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director                                          

Jasmine Herlt
Canada Director

Suresh Bhalla
Co-Chair, Canada Committee

Nancy Hamm
Co-Chair, Canada Committee                      

Cc:       Jack Layton, Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition

            Interim Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada

            Interim Leader of the Bloc Quebecois

            Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada

1. Regulation and monitoring of the activities of Canadian oil, mining, and gas companies operating abroad

In its February 2011 report "Gold's Costly Dividend," Human Rights Watch exposed a pattern of grave alleged human rights abuses committed by members of a private security force engaged by Canadian company Barrick Gold at its Porgera gold mine in Papua New Guinea. These alleged abuses, which include allegations of brutal gang rape and assault, were not recognized by the company until Human Rights Watch conducted its independent investigation.

This case illustrates the need for meaningful oversight mechanisms and regulations to ensure Canadian companies are behaving as responsible corporate citizens in developing countries. It also shows why responsible companies should welcome impartial Canadian governmental monitoring of their activities to ensure that they are aware of any human rights problems linked to their operations and to ensure that they respond to those problems in the most effective manner possible.

Most of the world's mining and exploration companies are based in Canada. Canadians would not tolerate this lack of oversight of companies operating within Canada's borders, and they should not tolerate it abroad. The 2007 National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility and the Canadian Extractive Industry in Developing Countries presented a range of recommendations that the government of Canada has yet to implement, including the creation of an independent ombudsman's office to investigate allegations of abuse.

Canada has created a corporate social responsibility (CSR) counselor position, but that office is not sufficiently independent, has no right to undertake investigations that are not welcomed by the company concerned, and has no mandate to make useful policy recommendations to the government. The CSR counselor may have a useful role to play, but it is not a substitute for real governmental oversight in the form of an ombudsman's office.

Canada should pass legislation to regulate the behavior of Canadian gas, oil, and mining companies operating overseas. This legislation should implement the recommendations of the 2007 National Roundtables, including the establishment of a regulatory framework sufficient to give the government power to monitor and to report publicly on the human rights records of Canadian companies, and to sanction companies that refuse to adhere to clearly-defined minimum standards.

2. Targeting the root causes of pregnancy-related illness and deaths in developing nations

In April 2010, Canada announced that its financial contribution to the G8 initiative on maternal and child health would not include programs that provide access to safe abortions. Human Rights Watch research shows that programs that give women and girls access to a full range of family planning and obstetric care options are the most effective at reducing preventable maternal deaths and child-birth injuries. Such programs include sex education and access to contraception and safe abortions.

While Human Rights Watch applauds Canada's financial commitment to assisting countries where women suffer medical complications due to a lack of sufficient obstetric care, we remain concerned that this assistance will not address all the core causes of maternal mortality in recipient countries.

Canada should remove restrictions on future funding for maternal health programs.

3.  The introduction of comprehensive legislation to ratify and implement the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which Canada has signed

Cluster munitions kill and maim high numbers of civilians. These weapons-when fired by artillery and rocket systems or dropped by aircraft-explode in the air, dispersing small submunitions over a large area, hitting civilians as well as soldiers. Cluster munitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving behind large numbers of dangerous duds that act like landmines. They put civilians at risk of injury for years to come.

Canada signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions on December 3, 2008, but has yet to pass domestic legislation to ratify and implement it. Canada's delay in passing such legislation compares unfavourably to several countries with similar governmental systems, such as New Zealand and the United Kingdom, which have acted more quickly. This is despite the fact that Canada has been the recognized leader of the international movement to ban antipersonnel mines.

Canada should immediately pass strong and comprehensive legislation to ratify and implement the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The legislation should explicitly prohibit not only the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions, but also any form of assistance with those banned activities when engaged in joint military operations with nations that still possess cluster munitions.

4. Adoption of concrete measures to actively support and promote the International Criminal Court (ICC), including the provision of financial and diplomatic support for the ICC

Canada played a pivotal leadership role in pushing for the establishment of the ICC as the permanent mechanism for prosecuting the world's worst offenders of human rights. Canadian leadership is required once again to ensure the court's effective operation.

Canada should resume a leadership role in supporting the ICC by backing up its statements on accused war criminals being brought to justice by exerting stronger diplomatic pressure on countries to cooperate with the ICC, especially through carrying out arrests of ICC suspects and by providing additional financial support for the court's expanding operations. In March 2011, the UK announced a £500,000 contribution to the court's Trust Fund for Victims. Unlike its international peer, Canada has failed to step up its support for the court by making a contribution to this fund. It decreased its overall funding following the fulfillment of its one-time allotment for the construction of new permanent premises for the court.

5.  Processing refugee claims efficiently while ensuring that Charter rights and due process rights of refugee claimants are protected

In June 2010, Canada's Parliament passed the Balanced Refugee Reform Act. Human Rights Watch is concerned about the act's "safe-country of origin" provision, which allows the minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism to designate certain countries or parts of countries as "safe."

The application of this provision is problematic. It is impossible to make a blanket determination that any country is safe for everyone, and the criteria by which the minister would make such a determination are unclear. For example, while generalized armed conflict may have been abated or reduced in recent months or years in some countries such as Sri Lanka, Iraq, and Kyrgyzstan, it would be unfair to individual refugee claimants to designate the whole or parts of such countries as safe so long as government authorities and private actors continue to persecute groups and individuals. If a refugee claimant comes from a country or part of a country that the minister designates as "safe," the individual merits of that person's claim and unique circumstances that may put them at risk in their home country are not given due consideration. The provision sends people seeking asylum from these places to a fast-track system where they will be processed more quickly and have fewer rights to appeal than other claimants. The lack of clear criteria for designating countries as presumptively safe also runs the risk of injecting foreign policy and other political concerns into a refugee status determination process that ought to be free of bias.

Canada should commit to treating refugee claimants with respect, dignity, and a thorough and objective consideration of the individual risks they face in their home countries. Canada should revisit the Balanced Refugee Reform Act to ensure that the Canadian refugee claims system does not shortcut fairness in the name of efficiency.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned with the proposed amendments to sections 20.1, 56.2, and 57.1 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act under Bill C-49, the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act, which set forth mandatory detention for designated foreign nationals who arrive irregularly and deny them judicial review until twelve months have passed. This approach, in effect, punishes asylum seekers whose only means to flee persecution may be by turning to smugglers, instead of targeting the human smugglers who organize the boats and capitalize on the desperation of people seeking protection. That these amendments would also preclude recognized refugees among such designated groups from applying for permanent residence or family reunification for another five years indicates that these measures are not driven by legitimate national security or other concerns, but rather are intended to deter groups that may include some of the world's most vulnerable refugees, such as boat people, from seeking asylum in Canada.

We recommend against reintroducing the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act, particularly the proposed amendments to sections 20.1, 56.2, and 57.1 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which, if enacted, would effectively punish one group of refugee claimants because of their irregular entry, which is incompatible with Canada's obligations under Article 31 of the Refugee Convention.

6. Omar Khadr's repatriation in accordance with Canadian law

Omar Khadr, a child combatant in Afghanistan and a Canadian citizen, has been in US custody since 2002. Despite Khadr's status as a child when captured on suspicion of murder and involvement in terrorist activities at age 15, the US government failed to treat him according to international law applicable to child soldiers. He was denied direct contact with his family, subjected to abusive forms of interrogation, and given no access to education or rehabilitation programs.

In February 2008, Human Rights Watch called on Canada to formally request that the US promptly release Khadr and repatriate him to Canada for appropriate rehabilitation if it was not prepared to prosecute Khadr in a judicial system that incorporates fundamental standards of juvenile justice and other fair trial rights. Instead, Khadr remained in US custody and was tried before a military commission, and now stands convicted of five charges as the result of a plea bargain.

Canada's government should abide by its commitment to favorably consider Mr. Khadr's expected request for repatriation and to repatriate him in accordance with Canadian law.

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