Amnesty International head calls indigenous issues Canada's “most significant human rights challenge”
High levels of violence faced by women and girls, policing, and access to housing and water are among the indigenous issues the head of Amnesty International Canada calls this country’s “most significant human rights challenge.”
“There’s no denying that that is Canada’s most substantial human rights failing and shortcoming, and of course not just for months or years, but for decades and decades—and we really do as a nation need to do much more to ensure that the rights of indigenous peoples right across Canada, from the Pacific to the Atlantic to the Arctic, are better protected,” the organization’s secretary general Alex Neve told the Georgia Straight in a recent interview.
Indigenous rights were among the issues cited in the summary of Canada’s record in Amnesty International’s 50th global human rights report, which was released last month.
The report entry does not paint a rosy picture of human rights in general in this country, according to Neve.
“We’re not in the best of times right now with respect to the state of human rights in Canada,” he said.
The report identified a number of other concerns with respect to human rights in Canada in the year 2011, including the rejection of calls for a public inquiry into the policing of the G8 and G20 summits in 2010. More than 1,000 people were arrested during protests of the G20 meeting in Toronto. Amnesty has called for a public inquiry into that incident, and more recently into the policing of the ongoing student protests in Quebec.
“Hundreds and hundreds of people arrested, illegitimately in almost all cases, and concerns about abuse and excesses, and if we don’t have something like a public inquiry convened to look into one of those situations…then we’re going to continue to just lurch from one situation to another, without the lessons being learned, without clear best practices on the record, without a clear understanding of what causes problems on the record, and I think it’s almost inevitable we’re just going to see more of these kinds of situations,” said Neve.
He also targeted the controversial emergency legislation introduced by the Quebec government in an attempt to quell daily protests against tuition increases in that province.
“We’ve been very clear in stating that Bill 78…is in violation of Canada’s international human rights obligations,” said Neve. “It violates key international norms around freedom of expression, around freedom of association, around freedom of assembly, and should be repealed.”
Neve made the comments as Amnesty International Canada delegates prepare to gather in Vancouver for the organization’s annual general meeting, beginning this Friday (June 15).
During the interview at the Georgia Straight offices, the Amnesty International secretary general also addressed a range of other issues of concern to the organization, including the situation in South Sudan. Neve recently returned from a research mission to the country, where he observed firsthand the conditions in overflowing refugee camps and spoke to people who had fled the Sudanese states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.
“We interviewed countless individuals, many of whom had just fled their homes three or four days earlier, and they brought endless accounts of ongoing and [indiscriminate] bombardment, and about a growing food crisis, because the aerial bombardment has destroyed food crops, it’s made it impossible for farmers to plant for the upcoming season, and people are literally feeling an endless, endless hunger now,” he recounted.
The refugee camp that Amnesty visited had gone from receiving 30 to 50 new arrivals a day to seeing about 400 arrivals daily by the time his group arrived, he noted. The organization documented what he called a serious range of concerns at the refugee camp while they were there.
“Much more needs to be done to ensure that they’re kept safe and that their rights are going to be protected,” he said.
Neve described hearing a sentiment among the refugees that they felt increasingly forgotten by the international community.
“While we were on the ground, Sudan and South Sudan were sort bristling with talk of war…that finally generated a lot of attention,” he recalled. “And refugees who were fleeing this other related crisis, but it wasn’t this sort of war between nations that the world was finally paying attention to, were certainly aware of the fact that suddenly the world was paying attention to their part of the world, but they weren’t paying attention to them.
“It was borders and oilfields and cross-border bombing campaigns that governments were getting upset about, but…they hadn’t had that same level of attention and concern for the many, many months during which they were being bombed, during which they were being forced to flee from their homes, during which they were having to cross borders and live in very desolate, difficult conditions in refugee camps,” he added.
Neve said Amnesty International intends to push United Nations agencies and governments to devote greater resources to the over 100,000 refugees who have fled across the border from Sudan.
“We’ve always felt that that’s our purpose in many respects, is to make sure that individuals or situations that are being forgotten are remembered, and are put in front of world leaders in ways that force them to finally pay attention and take some action—so over the weeks and months to come, that’s what we’ll be doing,” he said.
That discussion of human rights issues off the public radar has been a part of Amnesty’s mandate as it has evolved over the decades. The organization, which recently marked its 51st anniversary, historically focused on campaigning for the release of prisoners of conscience around the world.
“Over those 51 years, our human rights work has expanded immensely as well, to the point now where really what Amnesty International stands for is to defend and speak out about violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Neve explained.
“That does include instances of unjust imprisonment, it includes issues like torture and the death penalty and disappearances, but it also extends to issues around the equality of women and girls, and certainly now an important part is speaking out about what we would call economic, social and cultural rights—the right to education, the right to housing, the right to health care, the right to be able to have sufficient food and clean water to stay alive.”
As part of Amnesty’s annual general meeting in Vancouver, the organization will also be hosting a human rights conference open to the public this Saturday (June 16).
“This year we really wanted to open it up and make it more dynamic and bring in more members of the public and hopefully with that attract new supporters, new members, but also offer people an opportunity to learn and explore their own horizons with respect to human rights topics,” said Neve.
Items on the conference agenda include human rights and the arms trade, refugee protection, mining and human rights in Guatemala, the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the rights of indigenous peoples, and the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
The annual general meeting will take place from Friday to Sunday (June 15 to 17). The human-rights conference, which is open to the public, will be held Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the University of British Columbia. There is a $20 cost for this event, which includes special speakers, and participants need to show up by 10 a.m. to secure a seat for the day.