“The Promotion of Transnational Human Rights: What Role for Canada at the UN?: Event Recap” By Sophie Sklar

On October 20, 2021, the Jack and Mae Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security was pleased to host the Honourable Bob Rae, the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN). Since his appointment in 2020, Ambassador Rae has taken on a number of initiatives on behalf of Canada at the UN, including calling on the UN to investigate evidence of genocide against the Uighur minority in China.

Ambassador Rae’s discussion was on the subject of “The Promotion of Transnational Human Rights: What Role for Canada at the UN?”, which explored how exactly to define transnational human rights, and provided audience members with both a historical overview and contemporary analysis of Canada’s work to promote and protect these rights at the UN. The discussion highlighted Canada’s belief in human rights which transcend national boundaries, and the ways Canada holds itself and other UN member states accountable in enforcing these rights. On the universality of human rights, Ambassador Rae told audience members: “It’s always been about two things: one is the human dignity and how we respect dignity and autonomy, and the fact that these rights really do pertain to human beings as a fundamental core assumption… the second thing is that the protection of these rights is a continuing exercise.”

Transnational Human Rights: The Past and the Present Reality

 During his discussion, Ambassador Rae offered a look into the history of rights promotion and examined the architecture used to protect rights in the current day. He explained this architecture is a historical phenomenon and also a phenomenon that is still in play. Ambassador Rae also staunchly maintained Canada’s key commitment to recognizing the importance of human rights, both domestically and transnationally.

Ambassador Rae highlighted that the mechanisms to enforce these rights are consistently evolving and changing, and many challenges arise during attempts to maintain and enforce these rights through treaties, conventions, and international institutions. On the topic of Canada’s involvement in various UN initiatives to protect human rights, Ambassador Rae said:

“If you look at the history of these charters, treaties, declarations, and institutions, you’d have to say that we are in a world today where rights are recognized, affirmed, and declared, but the challenge is not just the affirmation and confirmation of rights – but the fundamental question is the issue of enforcement.”

He further emphasized that while the UN has worked to create a variety of declarations, Canada does not necessarily have a distinguished history in how these declarations have been embraced. With this discussion, Ambassador Rae put forth a crucial challenge in international law and politics today, which is: how should Canada and other UN member states reconcile the gap between the rights and the lack of remedies to protect the abuse of rights?

Ambassador Rae left audience members with key insights into the nature of the current reality surrounding rights promotion, telling listeners: “Rather it’s at the ICJ or ICC, this [the architecture to protect transnational human rights] is a work in progress and this is highly imperfect in many respects.”

Canada’s Role in Promoting Transnational Human Rights

In terms of the role of Canada in promoting human rights which transcend national boundaries, Ambassador Rae turned to an examination of Canada’s work at the UN, and the mentality behind the Canadian perspective on transnational human rights.

He brought forward the important idea of Canada’s commitment to equal application of transnational human rights standards to all nations across the globe, including Canada itself. Ambassador Rae explained Canada does not believe that we as a nation are exceptional or immune from these rights, and that this is what gives Canada credibility when discussing human rights on the world stage. He powerfully told listeners, “We’re not asserting that we’re not subject to the same rules, we’re not asserting that our laws are different than anyone else’s.”

However, Ambassador Rae also touched on some of the shortcomings of the Canadian system in terms of its ability to comply with transnational human rights. He emphasized that Canadians are not perfect international citizens, citing the country’s lack of internalization of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an example. He referenced Canada’s deficiency in internal institutions or mechanisms to challenge or question issues such as the lack of ability to adapt to the SDGs. Further, Ambassador Rae discussed a lack of accountability for Canada in terms of the nation’s dealings with issues around Indigenous rights domestically, which are highly connected to our international obligations. He told audience members, “It has been an important feature of our national rhetoric that we accept these obligations, but there’s always an issue of the rhetoric versus the action.”

Further, Ambassador Rae discussed the ways that Canada participates in the governance of the UN in ways that work towards the promotion of transnational human rights. This includes Canada’s active contributions to the UN at every level, such as through ECOSOC and the Peace-building Commission, and Canada’s involvement in various global conflicts, the discussion surrounding climate change, and conversations on financing development in the age of COVID. He took audience members through the various ways in which Canada plays a strong and vibrant role at the UN pertaining to the enforcement of rights.

 Looking to the Future of Transnational Human Rights

Looking to the future trajectory of Canada’s promotion of transnational human rights, Ambassador Rae introduced the idea of thinking in a “seven generation way” – meaning forming policies and enacting strategies while considering what the impact of these actions will be in seven generations. In terms of rights promotion, Canada is looking to build institutions that have greater consideration for future generations and is also trying to give a voice to young people, as well as introducing new perspectives into the conversation within the Canadian context. Further, Ambassador Rae introduced the idea of reflecting the value of inclusiveness surrounding Canada’s discourse on the promotion of transnational human rights.

When looking to the future, Ambassador Rae highlighted the importance of creating more effective national institutions that focus on rights promotion, which is inextricably connected to international justice. Further, Canada must think about the institutional ways to respond to time-sensitive rights issues such as climate change, and must consider obligations to future generations in the institutions and policies that are formed in the present day.

Overall, while there is certainly lots of room for progress and tremendous work to be done in the area of Canada’s promotion of rights – both domestic and transnational – Ambassador Rae shared a positive vision of the future, telling audience members:

“I’m not pessimistic about the future. First of all, I think the international institutions are improving… and I think the other thing that can improve is if a number of countries, including Canada, begin improving their obligations of their own conduct and of their own citizens”

To watch the recording of Ambassador Bob Rae’s discussion, click here.