Canada and the United Nations Human Rights Council: Dissent and Division

Article excerpt

In 2006, a new Human Rights Council came into existence, replacing the former Commission on Human Rights with a restructured intergovernmental body for the global promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Heralded as a turning point for human rights within the UN system, it was hoped that the new 47-member Council would operate with a renewed emphasis on fairness and objectivity, although it must always be remembered that the Council remains a political body governed by and directed by states. As a member of the Council from 2006-2009, Canada became known as the lead voice of opposition, voting against what it viewed as unbalanced resolutions censuring Israel and the adoption of a long-awaited United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada also voted on principle and with the support of its usual allies against a variety of resolutions reflecting an agenda embraced by Asian, African and Islamic states, who can use their Council vote allocations to serve their own political goals at the expense of achieving consensus. More worrisome, however, for the general health of the field of international human rights law is the seemingly unbridgeable gap between developed and developing states concerning the recognition of so-called "third generation" human rights, including collective human rights with an economic dimension, that is revealed by this review of the Council's resolution and decision-making activities from 2006-2009, focusing on those actions which were decided by a recorded vote. While the divisions between rich and poor, and North vs. South, clearly pre-date the Council's establishment, their continuation and impact within a new institution dedicated to renewed cooperation reveals a degree of dysfunction worthy of further discussion during the Council's first review scheduled to take place in 2011.


For those following developments within the field of human rights law and policy, 2006 was an important year since it marked the replacement of what had become the widely discredited United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights with a new and reinvigorated intergovernmental body. Heralded as a turning point for human rights within the UN system, the creation of the new UN Human Rights Council was greeted with high expectations and the hope that future efforts to foster global action on matters of basic rights and freedoms would be guided by considerations of fairness and objectivity. Eager to play a part within this new institution, Canada successfully ran for membership, and served as one of the Council's 47 member-states from its earliest days of operation in 2006, until June 2009. However, Canada soon became known as the voice of opposition within the new Council, registering a recorded "no" vote on contentious matters with a degree of frequency unequalled by any other Council member-state within the institution's first three years, and establishing a hitherto unexpected reputation within international circles as a voice of dissent. With Canada having now completed its term of membership on the Council, a timely opportunity presents itself for review and reflection on both Canada's experience and the general trends established during the Council's formative years. This assessment is also useful in light of the Council's first review to be conducted in 2011.

The purpose of this article is to lay a foundation for the 2011 appraisal of the Council's promised benefits as well as it's apparent burdens through an objective study of what has happened within the Council from 2006-2009 based on a careful review of the official record. This article also endeavors to undertake the analysis required to understand more fully the motivating factors behind Canada's position as the persistent dissenter within the Council. While others may wish to conduct an assessment of the Council's contributions through a particular analytical perspective, or by focusing on a specific theme within the field of human rights, (2) the aim of this research will be to provide a more foundational and equally valid contribution to the existing literature on institutional design and international human rights promotion by conducting a baseline review of the Council's decision-making activities focusing on the adoption of resolutions and decisions (3) by way of a recorded vote. …