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Canada: Safety of Indigenous Women Under UN Scrutiny

Opportunity for Action to End Violence Against Indigenous Women, Girls

(Toronto) – The United Nations Human Rights Council adopted today the report on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Canada’s human rights record, which included a large set of questions, recommendations, and comments from countries across the world about violence against indigenous women and girls. The attention should spur Canada to take decisive action to address the hundreds of murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls over the last four decades, Human Rights Watch said today.

“It is not surprising that violence against indigenous women and girls figured so prominently in the discussion of Canada’s human rights record,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “It reflects the persistent insecurity faced by women and girls, the urgent need for a public accounting of what has gone wrong for so long, and a robust national plan for addressing it going forward.”

In February 2013, Human Rights Watch released “Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada.” The report documents the failure of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in British Columbia to protect indigenous women and girls from violence. It also documents abusive police behavior against indigenous women and girls, including excessive use of force, and physical and sexual assault. The report also found that Canada has inadequate police complaint mechanisms and oversight procedures, including a lack of a mandate for independent civilian investigations into all reported incidents of serious police misconduct.

The report released in Geneva today summarizes Canada’s second Universal Periodic Review which took place on April 26, 2013. All UN member countries undergo such a review every four years. During the UPR process, other UN member countries may ask questions and make recommendations about measures to improve the country’s human rights situation.

The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Slovenia, Sweden, and Mexico submitted questions in advance about Canada’s response to violence against indigenous women and girls. While recognizing efforts made by Canada on this issue, China, the United States, Estonia, Finland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Slovakia, Togo, and others expressed concerns about the situation during the review and made recommendations to the government.

The development of a national strategy to combat the violence was a recurring recommendation.

The government elaborated on measures in place to address the issue, including the National Center for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, police task forces to investigate cases, and community safe plans.

“To be successful, any effort to address violence against indigenous women and girls will need to address the issue of police accountability,” Gerntholtz said. “That includes accountability for the police response to reports of violence in the community and accountability for any acts of violence committed by police officers themselves.”

In conjunction with the Human Rights Council’s review, Canadian government representatives said that Canada had recently approved the requests of three human rights authorities to visit the country, which had been pending for varying lengths of time. James Anaya, UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said in February 2013 that he was awaiting a response to a February 2012 request to visit Canada to examine and report on the human rights situation.

At a March 2013 hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights regarding violence against indigenous women and girls, a commissioner noted that the government had not yet responded to a 2012 request to visit. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women announced its decision to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada in late fall 2011. Canada’s statement at the Human Rights Council on Friday was the first public notice that the committee had received permission to visit.

“Granting human rights authorities permission to visit is an important step forward,” Gerntholtz said. “We hope it signals that the government is more receptive to meaningful examination of these issues and will heed the call for a national public inquiry into the murders and disappearances.”

The Native Women’s Association of Canada documented 582 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada as of March 2010. Many happened between the 1960s and the 1990s, but 39 percent occurred after 2000. The number of cases is undoubtedly higher today, but comprehensive data is not available since the government cut funding for the organization’s database and police forces in Canada do not consistently collect race and ethnicity data.

The federal opposition, human rights organizations, and indigenous groups, including the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations, have recommended that the government launch a national commission of inquiry into the overwhelmingly high levels of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada. Public national inquiries allow for impartial investigation into an issue of national importance. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government has repeatedly declined to act on this recommendation.

In February the federal government established an all-party committee in Canada’s House of Commons to hold hearings on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and propose solutions to address root causes of violence. While this is an advance, it is not a substitute for a national commission of inquiry with independent powers beyond those of a parliamentary committee, Human Rights Watch said.

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