International human rights complaints

Individuals subject to Canada's jurisdiction may also bring human rights complaints to the UN or the Organization of American States. As a general rule, international complaint procedures require individuals to look for a solution within their own country first – bringing complaints to the international body only after all available domestic remedies have been exhausted.

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Complaints to the United Nations

Individuals may bring complaints that Canada has violated their human rights to the attention of various UN bodies. Canada has accepted the competence of three UN human rights treaty bodies to accept and consider individual complaints (also called “communications”). Also, individuals (or groups) may send a complaint to “Special Procedures” of the Human Rights Council. Each has advantages and disadvantages to consider before selecting the most appropriate avenue for a complaint.

You can find more information on complaints to the UN bodies, as well as guidelines and a model complaint form, through the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Complaints under the international human rights treaties

Individuals may make complaints that Canada has violated their rights under these three UN treaties:

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)

Each of these treaties has a committee of independent experts (called a “treaty body”) responsible for monitoring implementation of State Party obligations. The treaty bodies may also consider individual complaints.

The complaint process of both the ICCPR and the CEDAW are found in optional protocols to the treaties, namely the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The complaint process for alleging violation of the CAT can be found in article 22 of the treaty itself.

Filing a complaint

You do not have to be a lawyer – or be familiar with legal and technical terms – to bring a complaint before a treaty body. It is important to note that the treaty bodies will require that a complaint meet certain criteria. 

First of all, the treaty bodies require that you exhaust all available domestic remedies before filing your complaint , including any court action and/or complaints to Canadian human rights commissions and all possible appeals. However, a treaty body can choose not to apply this rule if the application of remedies is unreasonably prolonged.  

In addition, a treaty body may consider a complaint inadmissible if it:

  • is anonymous;
  • lacks a sufficient factual basis;
  • involves events that took place before Canada became bound by the treaty;
  • claims rights that are not protected by the treaty in question;
  • is presently before another treaty body or international procedure of investigation or settlement*; or
  • was previously considered by another treaty body or international procedure of investigation or settlement*.

Once the treaty body has accepted and registered a complaint, the treaty body will request a response from Canada. The treaty body may also choose to make an “interim measures request” to prevent irreparable harm. 

At all stages of the procedure, the Government of Canada – on its own behalf or on behalf of the provincial/territorial government implicated – will be given an opportunity to comment and provide its views on your complaint. Where the complaint also falls under the jurisdiction of a provincial or territorial government, the Government of Canada works in consultation with that government in preparing Canada's response.

The treaty body will then consider the admissibility and merits, usually simultaneously. If your complaint is inadmissible, the process ends there. If your complaint is considered admissible, then the treaty body will issue its “final views” on the merits. This process may take two to four years. 

If the treaty body considers that Canada has violated your rights, then it may choose to recommend a remedy. Canada will be asked to supply information on steps it has taken to give effect to the final views, requests or recommendations. The treaty body will request that Canada provide its response within a given time frame. Canada normally replies expressing agreement or disagreement with the views. 

It is important to note that the treaty bodies' final views are final. There is no possibility of appeal. Also, the treaty bodies' final views, requests and recommendations are not legally binding. In other words, the State Party is not legally obligated to implement them. However, Canada takes its human rights obligations very seriously. Canadian officials will review the final views carefully and give serious consideration to the recommendations.

The UN treaty body complaints process is confidential (not accessible to the public).  The treaty body will place on its website an edited version of the final views. Your complaint and Canada's response will be summarized. You may request that the treaty body use only your initials in its final views. 

Views on complaints brought against Canada under the ICCPR, the CEDAW and CAT can be found by searching the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Treaty Body Database

Human Rights Council Complaints Procedure

The UN Human Rights Council has a complaints procedure to address consistent patterns of gross violations of all human rights and all fundamental freedoms occurring in any part of the world, and under any circumstances. This procedure was created in 2007 through the adoption of resolution 5/1, entitled “Institution-Building of the United Nations Human Rights Council.”

Learn more about the Human Rights Council complaint procedure through the Office the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Complaints under Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council

Complaints may also be made to the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. These Independent Experts, Special Rapporteurs, and Working Groups have mandates related to specific countries or specific issues, such as violence against women, arbitrary detention, freedom of opinion and expression, and torture.

Individuals or groups may send an individual complaint or concerns about broader, structural patterns of human rights violations to the appropriate mandate-holder. The Special Procedures may respond to complaints by sending communications to States, such as urgent appeals or requests for information. 

Petitions to the Organization of American States

Individuals and groups may also choose to make a complaint (called a petition) to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS), alleging a violation of the rights described in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.

The Declaration identifies a number of protected civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

An individual or group may submit petitions concerning alleged violations of a human right recognized in the Declaration. The IACHR requires that petitions meet certain criteria. For example, the IACHR requires that all adequate and effective domestic remedies have been exhausted .

The IACHR will first consider the admissibility of the petition (this is called the “preliminary evaluation”). The IACHR may also choose to issue a non-binding request for “precautionary measures” to prevent irreparable harm. If it deems the petition admissible, the IACHR will consider the merits of the case. This process may take several years.

The IACHR will request that Canada provide its views in response to the petition (called a “final report on the merits”). The Government of Canada will respond on its behalf or on behalf of the provincial/territorial government implicated.

The IACHR's complaints process is confidential (not accessible to the public). The IACHR will place on its website an edited version of the final report. Your complaint and Canada's response will be summarized. You may request that the IAHCR use only your initials in its final report.

If the IACHR considers that Canada has violated your rights, then it may choose to recommend a remedy. Canada will be asked to supply information on steps it has taken to give effect to the final report, requests or recommendations. The IACHR will request that Canada provide its response within a given time frame. Canada normally replies expressing agreement or disagreement with the IACHR's views.

It is important to note that the IACHR's final report on the merits is final. There is no possibility of appeal. Also, the IACHR's views, requests and recommendations are not legally binding. In other words, the State Party is not legally obligated to implement them. However, Canada takes its human rights obligations very seriously. Canadian officials will review the final report carefully and will give serious consideration to the recommendations.

You can access additional information on the OAS complaint mechanism, a model form for presenting petitions as well as reports on petitions and cases through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

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