Canada and the United Nations human rights system

Since the foundation of the UN, Canada has been firmly committed to the promotion of human rights within Canada and around the world.

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How Canada works with the United Nations

Canada is a founding member of the UN and is party to seven principal United Nations human rights conventions and covenants (also known as treaties).

As a party to these treaties, Canada agrees to respect and ensure the human rights of all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction, without discrimination of any kind. To monitor how States Parties like Canada are implementing and respecting their treaty obligations, each UN treaty has a corresponding “treaty body” of independent, impartial experts (usually called a “committee”).

Every four to five years, States Parties must prepare reports on their progress of implementing and upholding their treaty obligations. Canada reports regularly to each treaty body and urges other States to also report. The reporting process involves collaboration and cooperation between all levels of government, First Nations, and civil society. The Department of Canadian Heritage publishes Canada's reports to the UN for each of the seven treaties.

Canada also participates in the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR is a peer-review process in which the human rights situation in each UN Member State is reviewed by other Member States at the United Nations Human Rights Council every four years. Each Member State receives critical comments and recommendations on how to improve its human rights record.

UN treaty bodies can also receive individual complaints about a State Party that has violated an individual's human rights. This process exists in Canada under the Committee against Torture, the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the Human Rights Committee.

This complaints process is confidential. Certain conditions must be met for a complaint to be admissible. For example, the individual must have exhausted domestic remedies. The treaty body may request that Canada take or refrain from certain measures while the complaint is under consideration. These are called “interim measures requests.”

The treaty body will consider the written complaint and Canada's reply before issuing its “final views” as to whether a violation occurred. The treaty body's requests, views and recommendations are not legally binding on Canada. However, Canada takes its human rights obligations very seriously and will carefully consider the treaty body's requests and views.  

Learn more about how Canada stays accountable for its human rights obligations and commitments through its performance and reporting.

International human rights treaties and the federal system

Under Canada's federal constitution, powers are divided among federal, provincial and territorial governments. Each government has the power to legislate upon matters that directly affect various aspects of human rights. This division of power must be taken into account in the ratification and implementation by Canada of international human rights treaties and in reporting on them.

To enable federal-provincial-territorial cooperation, the Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights (CCOHR) was formed in 1975. The CCOHR consults on international human rights treaties under consideration in Canada.

Read more about the structure and operations of the CCOHR.

United Nations human rights mechanisms

In addition to the reporting system for each of the seven principal human rights treaties, a number of other mechanisms have been created by the UN to oversee various aspects of human rights issues.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is tasked with coordinating human rights throughout the UN system. The OHCHR provides a forum for identifying, highlighting and developing responses to today's human rights challenges. A Canadian, Ms. Louise Arbour, was appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2004; she held the title until 2008.

General Assembly of the United Nations

Composed of all UN Member States, the General Assembly of the United Nations is the main deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the UN. Decisions on important questions – such as peace and security measures, admission of new members and budgetary matters – require a two-thirds majority. Decisions on other questions are by simple majority. Each country has one vote. 

Economic and Social Council of the United Nations

The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) is the UN's central platform for reflection, debate and innovative thinking on sustainable development. The ECOSOC engages a wide variety of stakeholders – policymakers, parliamentarians, academics, major groups, foundations, business sector representatives and registered non-governmental organizations – in a productive dialogue on sustainable development.

United Nations Human Rights Council

The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) is an inter-governmental body within the UN system, responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. It aims to address situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them. The Council is made up of 47 UN Member States elected by the UN General Assembly.

Commission on the Status of Women

Established in 1946, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) promotes the advancement of women and ensures that the work of the UN incorporates a gender perspective. The CSW makes reports and recommendations to the Economic and Social Council on the promotion of women's rights, and on urgent problems requiring immediate attention in the field of women's rights and the equality of rights of men and women.

History of the United Nations

Founded in 1945, the United Nations is an international organization made up of 193 Member States committed to international peace and security, social progress, better living standards and human rights.

The UN has four main purposes:

  • To keep peace around the world;
  • To develop friendly relations among nations;
  • To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other's rights and freedoms; and
  • To be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals.

The Charter of the United Nations is the treaty that established the UN.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. It was the result of the experience of World War II. With the end of the war and the creation of the UN, the international community vowed to prevent the horrors of war in the future. World leaders decided to complement the United Nations Charter with a “road map” to guarantee the fundamental rights of every individual everywhere. Canadian John P. Humphrey was one of the drafters.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is widely accepted as reflecting important principles of customary international law. These principles are binding on all States. For example, all States must respect the right of everyone to be free from torture.  

In the following years, the UN began by drafting several instruments that would cover a range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. UN Member States then met to negotiate and agree upon the final version of each treaty. To date, ten core human rights treaties have been negotiated at the UN. Canada is a party to seven. 

In 1993, States came together in Vienna to reaffirm their commitment to human rights and the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action affirmed the equal importance of all human rights, declaring them to be universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.

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