Canada’s international posture on human rights : consequences in the domestic domain


University of British Columbia

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Master of Laws - LLM




A fundamental tension exists today between the increasing willingness of states to participate in international efforts to protect fundamental human rights, and their desire to retain control over internal laws and procedures. Canada, as an active participant in international human rights regimes, has assumed numerous international obligations which have not for the most part been directly incorporated into Canadian law. Canadian law has traditionally drawn a distinction between the international obligations which Canada has undertaken as a party to international treaties, and the individual domestic rights which may be enforced in Canadian courts. In recent years, however, this distinction has become blurred. At present, the international human rights instruments to which Canada is a party have an uneasy place in Canadian law. Many courts in Canada are unfamiliar with the provisions of these instruments. In recent years the Supreme Court of Canada has increasingly demonstrated a willingness to refer to international conventions, particularly as aids in interpreting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the articulation of the impact of international human rights law on domestic law remains less than clear. Canada has accepted the competence of international treaty bodies to adjudicate upon individual complaints alleging violations of international human rights obligations by Canada, yet Canada's responses to the views and requests of these treaty bodies has been inconsistent. The result is a lack of clarity regarding Canada's policies on implementation of its international human rights obligations. Questions are increasingly being raised in relation to the domestic impact of Canada's international posture on human rights. It is time that the Government of Canada recognize that there are serious issues that need to be addressed and reflect upon what steps might be taken to achieve a more rational, effective approach to the assumption and implementation of international human rights obligations. Four areas which the Government should examine in this regard are the pressing need for informed public debate, changes to the ratification process, the positions advanced before domestic courts, and the need to improve the credibility of the international treaty body process.

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