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Evidence of meeting #38 for Subcommittee on International Human Rights in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was work.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Frédéric Hareau  Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

1:30 p.m.

Liberal

Marc Miller Liberal Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Soeurs, QC

Absolutely.

In terms of education and awareness, which specific steps have to be taken in a program in a third-world country, a developing country?

1:30 p.m.

Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

Frédéric Hareau

First, it needs a realization on the part of local populations. They have to understand the values and principles on which human rights are based: the principles of inclusion and non-discrimination, and to see the consequences of human rights violations on their own communities.

Then you have to develop skills in terms of community engagement, in order to build greater knowledge of the systems of legal protection for human rights and to find ways to act that are often community-based. So all members of the community will then be encouraged to act in the event of violations of human rights, or of rights in general.

That also often requires a lot of interaction with local authorities.

Solutions will come more from the communities. Our role is to provide a framework for the reflection on what is possible for the community, in terms of communication, commitment and negotiation, in order to move its human rights objectives forward.

1:30 p.m.

Liberal

Marc Miller Liberal Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Soeurs, QC

You work with state players, not just with civil society specifically. Have you been able to bring awareness to the authorities, telling them, for example, that they cannot use the fight against terrorism as an excuse to brush aside human rights? That is certainly a very hard discussion, I agree. However, the excuse is often used by state players in order to justify human rights violations.

1:30 p.m.

Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

Frédéric Hareau

Yes, it is a difficult and long-term dialogue. Often, and especially in Africa, violence and torture are used as investigative methods, simply because there is no other way to find evidence. We see that very often.

There should be several levels of intervention. First, people are not aware of existing obligations and laws. We absolutely must engage the authorities on those issues. We must also try to work with the high-level authorities and grassroots authorities. Sometimes, we may not have a very strong commitment at the national level, but we can still work at the grassroots level with the local authorities. We must try to create a dialogue about the obligations and legislation in place.

Our work with the authorities is a commitment throughout the stages of implementing our projects. This is not just a matter of dealing with a particular player outside our interventions. From the outset, we are also trying to forge ties and build relationships between state authorities and civil society actors.

1:30 p.m.

Liberal

Marc Miller Liberal Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Soeurs, QC

Do you feel that there is progress or do you feel that the state sometimes uses you as an excuse to somehow justify its actions with respect to human rights? Is there any tension on that front?

1:30 p.m.

Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

Frédéric Hareau

We try to do everything possible to avoid being used by the state in that way. The level of dialogue will depend on the circumstances.

Is there any progress? I think there is, as long as there is awareness and recognition of human rights. Right now, we really have to establish the context of human rights, and there is still a lot of work to do.

It will depend on the situations and issues we are working on.

1:35 p.m.

Liberal

Marc Miller Liberal Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Soeurs, QC

My next question is about the involvement, education and awareness of Canadians. When I spoke with your colleagues, we mostly talked about raising awareness of human rights among Canadians.

Could you briefly explain the usefulness of that initiative?

1:35 p.m.

Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

Frédéric Hareau

In Canada, we work extensively with children and young people to raise awareness about the values underlying human rights: inclusion, diversity, participation, non-discrimination and gender equality. We see promoting these values as important for creating inclusive and democratic societies. Human rights education takes place at all ages. It begins with children’s understanding of what inclusion means to them in everyday life, at school, on the playground, in their families, in their communities. It is therefore a matter of building, from a very young age, all this learning and understanding of values.

It is also about developing commitment, which grows progressively in children and young people, so that they become involved in their society, becoming themselves agents of change and leaders when the time comes to build those interactions. This seems particularly important in communities with great diversity. Increasingly, the reality of every country in the world, including Canada, is tremendous diversity.

How do we achieve that mutual understanding? We feel that the values underlying human rights are fundamental. As I have just said, it is important to engage children and young people in those processes as agents of change.

We are now reaching more than 100,000 children in Canada. We started with children aged 6 to 12 and we are now working with teenagers. Right now, we are working to promote those values among refugee children arriving in Canada from a number of countries around the world, as well as to develop relationships within indigenous communities.

I think we have a lot of things to build together, including ties and connections.

1:35 p.m.

Liberal

Marc Miller Liberal Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Soeurs, QC

Thank you.

1:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Thank you, MP Miller.

MP Hardcastle, the floor is yours.

1:35 p.m.

NDP

Cheryl Hardcastle NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

I'd like to continue talking specifically about the situation in Burundi, because we are preparing our report and formulating some regulations. We did hear about the security and safety of the human rights defenders and that personnel. I know you mentioned that in your recommendations moving forward. Maybe you could give us some more examples of how you think we could formulate a plan.

1:35 p.m.

Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

Frédéric Hareau

I just want to point out that Equitas does not specifically monitor the situation of human rights defenders in Burundi.

In terms of prevention mechanisms, I think a number of actors are already working to ensure the safety of human rights defenders in Burundi, whether they are still in the country or somewhere else. As we know, those in countries bordering Burundi are also at risk of being murdered.

One of the main organizations, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, is based in Uganda. It has already set up support structures for defenders. I would be pleased to share with you the more specific recommendations that those organizations have made about defenders. The United Nations Special Rapporteur, Michel Forst, is also committed to making recommendations to that end.

1:35 p.m.

NDP

Cheryl Hardcastle NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Do you think, specifically in terms of the role of government, that it is funding that can actually address...? In terms of capacity building, how do we approach it?

1:35 p.m.

Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

Frédéric Hareau

Are you talking specifically about Burundi, or more generally?

1:35 p.m.

NDP

Cheryl Hardcastle NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

It would be more generally about facilitating the work of a human rights defender. Maybe you can talk a bit more about the mandate. Should we be looking at the mandate and how we can be targeting civil society more, or is it merely funding? That's basically what I'm getting at.

1:40 p.m.

Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

Frédéric Hareau

There are different interventions that can be made for the role of Canada. When we talk about specific support on the ground, I was mentioning as a recommendation having in Canadian representation overseas a focal point for human rights defenders. That would help a lot.

As for channelling the information, when a situation arises as a threat for human rights defenders, that would be one element. Having some guidelines for what the missions also could do in support and at different levels can be the promotion of the work of human rights defenders and doing some communication activities with a specific response. If there is a threat, that can connect them with an existing mechanism, or provide them with some financial support to relocate them. That's a specific role that the mission can play.

Funding definitely is also an issue, particularly in the number of cases where the situation is difficult in a country. It is very difficult for a human rights defender who operates often at the margin of the laws, to get funding through an existing mechanism, because they don't necessarily have a well-established structure at the administration to be able to manoeuvre in that framework. Often that creates some tension for them. They are doing some very important work, but they are not necessarily in a position to go through the mainstream funding mechanism. I think looking at that and being able to provide some flexible funding could be very important for them to continue to do the work.

I think the Canadian financial local initiative that exists at the ambassador level has been very helpful in supporting some groups on the ground, but maybe it's not totally adapted sometimes for the situation of human rights defenders. Talking with human rights defenders from Burundi, who are outside the country, this is one of their main issues, because everybody there recognizes the major issue that is taking place in Burundi and the incredible risk with the potential drama that can happen in the country, but there is very limited support. I was very surprised. There is almost no support for human rights defenders from Burundi who are outside of the country. They start and they continue to try to do their work without resources. That's another element that I think could be important to look at in how we support human rights defenders.

I think that supporting the mechanism at the regional level or international level is also something that's important. I was mentioning the mandate of the special rapporteur. There are some other mechanisms that exist that can be really helpful in ensuring there is better visibility for the role of human rights defenders internationally.

1:40 p.m.

NDP

Cheryl Hardcastle NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

I'd like you to expand a bit more on that. Is there something that's working that we should be moving forward on?

I'm not sure how we reconcile the work, how we create the space, or how we increase that space for civil society without the presence of human rights defenders, but there are places where you can't. How do they come organically, or how do we encourage the organic growth of a civil movement by increasing the space when there's such a threat to a human rights defender and where issues are evolving very quickly?

1:40 p.m.

Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

Frédéric Hareau

We're talking about Burundi where the situation on the ground makes it very difficult. I think the leverage you have in supporting the work on the ground is very limited.

Surprisingly, there are still some people who are able to operate in the country and continue to do some work. I think we need to find these people and to try to be able to find ways to support them. Often it can be through, for example, capacity building at the regional level. I think that is what we try to do and what we see. The connection with other human rights defenders and other organizations at the regional level is critical in being able to put the issue on the table and to provide some network of support and solidarity.

Now, with the role that civil society can play in Burundi, I think we also have to be realistic, even in the current situation right now. The government is not very open to hearing from anybody. From the international sphere, there have been many attempts to push the government, including recently also from the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. They made some strong statements. I think there needs to be very different levels and obviously, there needs to be some pressure diplomatically to push the government.

We hope that it can work, but I think there is no guarantee at this point to move forward.

1:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Michael Levitt

Thank you.

MP Khalid.

December 6th, 2016 / 1:45 p.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

Thank you, Mr. Hareau, for coming in, for your testimony, and for all of your hard work on this very important issue.

You mentioned in your presentation today that the work of human rights defenders is not being publicized and the world doesn't really know the great efforts that human rights defenders go through to ensure there is an increased respect for human rights around the world. By the same token, social media is such a powerful tool to spread that knowledge, but it's a pretty interesting situation that if there is an increased presence on social media for human rights defenders, governments now use this as surveillance, perhaps to target human rights defenders.

Where do you think the balance lies so there can be a proper promotion of the great work that human rights defenders do, not just on an individual basis, but also at the organization level, and a raising of awareness of the issues that they tackle, garnering the support of the global community, while also trying to mitigate any backlash they may get from such publicity?

May I please have your thoughts on that?

1:45 p.m.

Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

Frédéric Hareau

I would say first that in many countries around the world there is some space to publicize the work of human rights defenders. I think what is critical is to demonstrate the difference and the impact they make in the lives of people so that it does not stay at the level of very broad concepts and ideas, but actually leads to very concrete results. I think there are many examples we can use in terms of their work in communities and how it can change the lives of people—through laws, through the involvement of people, through making sure that the voices of the voiceless are heard and taken into consideration in developing policies or programs.

That's the space where it is.

On the more controversial issues, I think it is critical to work with the people from the country, from the place itself, who are much better placed to see what the space is, what message can resonate. I'll give an example. We are working on the LGBT rights in different countries of the world, and there is some space to publicize and to put the issue on the table. The better strategy in terms of finding the balance in creating some space to put that on the table without creating harm to the human rights defenders is with the people in the countries themselves, who are better placed. I'm thinking of Haiti, for example. In those cases we are very clear about not putting Equitas on the front line, because it is viewed then as an external imposition.

I think this is really the work, with the defenders themselves, and looking at what space exists in a country. It depends on how you frame the issue. You can sometimes frame it as a social issue rather than a human rights issue, depending on the space that exists and how the movement wants to position itself.

There is definitely some space, but it's often not taken, or it's viewed as a western imposition on the country, so how do you balance that?

1:45 p.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

You also mentioned in your presentation five factors that must be present in order for human rights defenders to be safe and to be able to do the work that they do. You listed some factors, such as having a good legal system, having a good political system, those safeguards. The countries that do have them don't necessarily have a level of human rights violations that would require human rights defenders to have those safeguards.

In my humble opinion, education plays a huge role in getting to that grassroots level and promoting human rights and a respect for human rights.

How does your organization promote the education of human rights, if at all? How can countries like Canada help with the promotion of human rights within educational systems around the world?

1:45 p.m.

Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

Frédéric Hareau

I think this is what Canada does for Equitas already, because this is really the heart of our work, human rights education and building capacity for human rights defenders, implementing that into both formal and non-formal educational systems. There are a number of initiatives undertaken by countries in terms of incorporating a human rights curriculum within their education system. Canada has a lot of expertise and experience to offer and has done that in a number of countries. I'm thinking, for example, of Senegal. It's about trying to build...and ensure that when we talk about education, we also talk about quality education. The right to human rights education is an integral part of the right to education, so it's to ensure that we integrate that.

There is a lot of curriculum that has been developed in Canada and other countries. It's really looking at how we can make those connections, ensuring that the countries that want to incorporate human rights education in their curriculum can benefit from the experiences that have been developed elsewhere. Building those network connections and ensuring access to resources is critical.

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

Iqra Khalid Liberal Mississauga—Erin Mills, ON

In a substantial part of the world there is a complete lack of education, especially in rural areas where the infrastructure is lacking for there to be schools at all. Does Equitas play a role in providing infrastructure in rural parts of the world?

1:50 p.m.

Director of Programs, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education

Frédéric Hareau

In formal education?