In July of 1999 the United Nations’ Human Development Index rated Canada first in a list of approximately 170 countries for our achievements in the areas of education, standard of living and life expectancy. This index has been produced annually for 10 years and, in the last six, has rated Canada as first. As Canadians, we should be proud of the social welfare programs and policies put in place over the past fifty years that allow for such international recognition. But all is not well. There is concern over the systematic dismantling of our social welfare and educational achievements which benefit all citizens.
In 1976 the United Nations, Canada and the provinces ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Canada is a signature to this Covenant, which complements the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that articulates the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want. This can be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone can enjoy economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights. The activities of all States Parties to this Covenant are reviewed every five years by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in order to assess progress made in achieving the provisions of the present Covenant. The Committee is a panel of experts from eighteen countries, selected by the Economic and Social Council of the UN.
The Canadian representatives met with the Committee in November of 1998. Our government delegates commented on Canada’s progress over the past five years toward achieving economic, social and cultural rights as established in the Covenant. Highlights of these reports include:
These reports were challenged by several Canadian non-government delegations who brought attention to public policy initiatives that they feel are responsible for growing poverty, inequality, hunger and homelessness. Delegation members described deteriorating conditions affecting vulnerable groups such as the poor, disabled, minorities, indigenous people and children. The priority of these delegations is to ensure that Canada adopts the terms of the Covenant in legislation and a framework to enforce national standards to protect the economic and social rights for all Canadians.
It should be noted that this is only a partial list of the many concerns discussed by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in their concluding observations.
The UN Committee states that economic and social rights should not be downgraded to "principles and objectives" in the ongoing discussions between the federal government and the provinces and territories regarding social programs. The Committee consequently urges the Federal Government of Canada to take concrete steps to ensure that the provinces and territories are made aware of their legal obligations under the Covenant and that these rights are enforceable through legislation and policy measures and the establishment of proper monitoring mechanisms.
The UN Committee report concludes with a request to the Government of Canada that "[Canada] ensure the wide dissemination of its present concluding observations and to inform the Committee of the steps taken to implement those recommendations in its next periodic report."
For this reason, the Halton Social Planning Council and Volunteer Centre shares with you the concerns raised by this international body about changes to our social welfare and educational systems that offend the Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Sources: UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Articles 16 & 17 of the Covenant, Dec. 4, 1998.
Malcolm Shookner, Ontario Social Development Council, Dispatch From Geneva, Nov. 1998.
Internet website: www.web.net/~ngoun98
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