Canada and the right to food at the UN: A disappointing and missed opportunity for leadership

by Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada (English branch) from Geneva

Last May was by no means a high-point for individual Canadians and organizations working to protect human rights domestically and globally.  In fact, many of us hung our heads in embarrassment.

The UN human rights expert who focuses on food security, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, had just wrapped up a ten day visit to Canada.  It had been a busy visit as he made considerable effort to reach out to and engage with Canadian food security and human rights groups everywhere he went.

Such visits are a common occurrence.  UN Special Rapporteurs regularly visit countries around the world and offer recommendations for improving human rights protection in their areas of specialty.  There have been similar visits from several other UN experts in past years. And the visits are always at the agreement of the country concerned.

As he was making final public statements and holding government meetings at the end of his visit the Special Rapporteur, Olivier De Schutter, came under stunning and unprecedented attack from the government.  He was insulted personally, he was blamed for his own government’s opposition to the Canadian seal hunt, and he was ridiculed and derided for having wasted his time in coming to an affluent country like Canada.  It was insulting to the millions of Canadian who face food insecurity.  It was a complete gutting of the meaning of Canada’s universal obligations with respect to economic, social and cultural rights.  And it undermined the integrity of the international human rights system, suggesting that it is appropriate to attack and insult UN human rights experts when in disagreement.

The government claimed they were upset about the timing of comments Mr. De Schutter had made to the press.  That did not come even remotely close to justifying the personal, inflammatory and legally inaccurate and misleading nature of the government attacks on him.

Today in Geneva, the report from Olivier De Schutter’s report was officially presented at a session of the UN Human Rights Council.  Following his presentation, the Canadian government, represented by the Ambassador at the Canadian Mission in Geneva, took to the floor to respond.

Amnesty International and many other Canadian human rights groups hoped that we would hear a more constructive tone.  We listened closely.  While there were no personal insults this time, we were sorely disappointed.

We heard boasts about Canada being one of the most affluent countries in the world, with numerous programs in place to respond to food insecurity among vulnerable groups such as Indigenous peoples and immigrant communities.   The fact that food security is one of Canada’s five international development assistance priorities was also highlighted.

The bulk of the presentation, however, focused on criticizing the Special Rapporteur’s work.  He was chastised for his “attempt” to analyze relevant Canadian laws, the suggestion being that he didn’t get that right.  Civil society groups in fact were impressed by his sophisticated and thorough analysis.  He was reprimanded for exceeding his mandate by commenting on such matters as the constitutional status of Indigenous peoples and trade policy.  He was also criticized for widesweeping conclusions about Canadian agricultural policy.

Most frustrating however was the very pointed rejection of Mr. De Schutter’s concerns about the ways that Canada’s federal structure, and relations between various levels of government, get in the way of strong protection of the right to food.  His concerns reflect the consistent experience of Canadian human rights groups.  It is a concern that has been highlighted several times by the Canadian Senate’s Standing Committee on Human Rights.  And it has been noted with mounting frustration by virtually all of the independent UN expert committees charged with overseeing the UN’s major human rights treaties.

However today the Canadian government slapped Mr. De Schutter’s wrist for even raising the topic, concluding that he simply didn’t understand the nature of federalism in Canada.  And then to my astonishment the government asserted that Canadian federalism has a “multiplier effect” when it comes to protecting human rights, as there are multiple levels of government involved in delivering the goods.

That stands completely contrary to the years of deep frustration that Canadian groups across the country have faced in working to protect human rights within a federal Canada.  Rather than multiplying protection, the consistent experience is one of federalism as a source of confusion and inaction; and an excuse for no one level or department within any government in the country to take leadership.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment – surprising or not – came at the end.  That was the lack of any imaginative or inspirational vision of the way forward.  It was an opportunity for a prosperous country to reaffirm that human rights are truly universal; and that economic, social and cultural rights absolutely must be protected within affluent states.  It was a chance for leadership; in a world that needs ever more human rights leaders, not more human rights detractors.

It was not to be.  The only vague promise made was to “examine” the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations; nothing more.    Certainly no commitments, not even to take up the very constructive, overarching recommendation to develop a comprehensive, national, rights-based strategy for protection of the right to food in Canada.  And not a word about consulting and engaging with the active and very engaged organizations across Canada who are at the frontline when it comes to responding to food insecurity in Canada.

Bruce Porter from the Social Rights Advocacy Centre had a 2 minute speaking slot on behalf of Canadian NGO’s.  He made it clear that food insecurity is indeed a very real human rights problem in Canada – for 4 million people.  He reiterated how shocked we were when the government attacked De Schutter last May.  And he expressed our hope that we will still see a more constructive response from the government on this important report about an important human rights concern.

In his final comments, responding to a question from our NGO group, Olivier De Schutter noted that Canada’s approach to implementing international human rights obligations is “ineffective” and that there is a notable lack of meaningful remedies for violations of economic, social and cultural rights. How true.

Sadly, the disappointment felt in May 2012 was not lifted by what we heard today.  All the more reason to redouble two important campaigns: stronger protection of the right to food in Canada; and to press Canada to once again become a leader in the crucial effort to strengthen (not undermine) the international human rights system.

Photo: Bruce Porter, Social Rights Advocacy Centre, Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada, and Leilani Fara, Canada Without Poverty. 

Related Information

Canada – UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food presents his report (4 March 2013)

Open Letter: Representatives of  over 100 organizations from across the country express deep concern about the federal government’s treatment of a United Nations human rights expert at the end of his mission to Canada in May 2012. (30 May 2012)