University of Calgary

Amnesty International gives unsettling message to Faculty of Law

UToday HomeMarch 28, 2013

By Ali Abel

The Secretary General of Amnesty International CanadaAlex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, spoke to the Faculty of Law on March 20.When the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada delivers a guest lecture in the Faculty of Law, you don’t expect to hear unpleasant stories about Canada when it comes to human rights.

After all, Canada has signed treaties and endorsed declarations on Indigenous peoples’ rights, women’s equality, and the rights of persons living with disabilities, to name a few. Canada is typically seen as the good guy on the international human rights stage.

However, what Alex Neve had to say about our country’s human rights record in his lecture Canada on the World Stage: Whither Human Rights? gave pause for thought.

Prior to joining Amnesty International Canada, Neve practised as a lawyer in the areas of refugee and immigration law. He holds a Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex.

“Canada’s high standing on the international human rights stage is starting to slip,” said Neve. “Our responses to reviews on our human rights issues have become very negative.”

According to Neve, Canada’s response to human rights reviews has changed. Blame used to be placed on our system of government — a federal system with several layers of decision makers (federal, provincial and municipal) — which makes it difficult for us to apply the recommendations. In recent years, our government officials have begun verbal attacks on United Nations (UN) representatives when recommendations are submitted, questioning why Canada is being reviewed for human rights practices and slinging personal insults.

“This new approach to how Canada engages at the international level when our own domestic human rights record is being reviewed is deeply worrying,” said Neve. “We expect and deserve better than a stance that shows disrespect for UN experts and undermines the very idea that international human rights are universal. The model Canada sets for other states is vital in terms of human rights leadership the world so desperately needs.”

When asked what law students, lawyers and judges can do to help, Neve stated: “We are talking about international law. A key piece to improving Canada’s record is to take these issues into courts. Judges are more receptive than they have ever been to international legal arguments. Lawyers need to be persistent and creative in putting international human rights norms at the heart of their cases. More legal arguments and recognition in the courts of Canada’s binding international human rights obligations can and will turn the tide.”

Jennifer Koshan, an associate professor in the Faculty of Law, notes that “the faculty takes this argument seriously. It offers courses including Human Rights Law and International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, and requires all students to learn about international law during their three year program.” Koshan believes that University of Calgary law students “can be leaders in advocating for the implementation of human rights norms in the Canadian context and internationally.”


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