UN Envoy Blasts Canada for “Self-Righteous” Attitude over Hunger, Poverty

27 May

By Sarah Schmidt, National Post

Canada needs to drop its “self-righteous” attitude about how great a country it is and start dealing with its widespread problem of food insecurity, the United Nations right-to-food envoy says.

In a hard-hitting interview this week with Postmedia News, Olivier De Schutter also blasted Canada for its “appallingly poor” record of taking recommendations from UN human-rights bodies seriously.

De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, has been on an 11-day mission to Canada, his first to a developed country.

It’s taken him to poor inner-city neighbourhoods in Central Canada, where he said he’s heard from families on social assistance who can’t afford to feed their children healthy foods.

He’s also travelled to remote aboriginal communities in Manitoba and Alberta, where he said he has seen “very desperate conditions and people who are in extremely dire straits.”

The envoy will give his preliminary assessment Wednesday as he wraps up his mission and addresses national media.

His report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council and will form part of Canada’s official international human rights record.

But the question is: Will it matter? Furthermore, some have questioned whether De Schutter should even be probing the state of such a wealthy country in the first place, given the scale of poverty and hunger in famine-stricken nations?

De Schutter is the first to admit that Canada’s record is wanton when it comes to responding to concerns flagged by UN human rights bodies. But he bristles at any suggestion that he has no business in Canada.

“It’s even more shocking to me to see that there are 900,000 households in Canada that are food insecure and up to 2.5 million people precisely because this is a wealthy country. It’s even less excusable,” said De Schutter.

“It’s not because the country is a wealthy country that there are no problems. In fact, the problems are very significant and, frankly, this sort of self-righteousness about the situation being good in Canada is not corresponding to what I saw on the ground, not at all.”

Yet that rosy picture is what’s being promoted by the Conservative government.

In a statement to Postmedia News, a spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan emphasized that, since 2006, the government has “worked with First Nations partners to ensure First Nations communities have access to healthy and affordable food, housing, education, and water, as well as economic opportunities.”

Meanwhile, federal officials have provided the envoy with “detailed briefings on the programs and initiatives in place to ensure First Nations have access to healthy, affordable food,” he said.

However, the Conservative government has declined to set up any meetings between cabinet ministers and De Schutter, something he described as highly unusual for UN special rapporteur missions.

“Well, look, the tradition is that when I visit countries on official missions, I have meetings at cabinet level,” De Schutter said.

“The position of the Canadian government is that this mission is one that requires discussions to be had at the technical level with high-level public servant, with whom I did meet. And I’m of course grateful for their time and expertise, but frankly the question of hunger is not a technical question, it’s a political question and without speaking to ministers, you cannot create the kind of understanding by the government that things are not going in the right direction, that there are very important blind spots in the current policies that the government cannot continue to ignore.”

De Schutter added: “To improve things in Canada, you need much more political will to be invested in this issue and that is a message I regrettably cannot make to public servants, convinced though of they are of this. I need to speak to the ministers, and I think this betrays, if you wish, a lack of understanding of what hunger is about.”

Bruce Porter, who monitors Canada’s track record at the UN Human Rights Council as a director at the Social Rights Advocacy Centre, says this attitude is reflected in Canada’s unease with seeing the right to food as a human right and its refusal to declare social and economic rights as on par with political and civil rights.

This well-entrenched position, which has been building for many years, is the underlying reason why the Canadian government often ignores recommendations of UN human rights bodies and lauds the high average standard of living in Canada when facing criticism, Porter said.

“It has been evolving; it’s not just the Conservative government. It’s been an attitude that started to emerge in Canada’s position internationally around 2000. Canada started to take positions at the UN, which were not favourable to treating economic and social right as rights that can be claimed and enforced,” Porter said.

For example, Canada decided in 2008 not to ratify a complaints procedure as part of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to permit a person to seek a remedy in the international arena if they’ve exhausted domestic options.

Canada ratified a similar complaints procedure for political and civil rights in 1976.

Canada also rejected key recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review in 2009, including one calling on Canada to develop a national strategy to reduce poverty based on human rights.

“Canada has shifted toward a very stubborn insistence that these are to be treated as just policy issues, and governments will decide how seriously to take them, and in some ways, that’s really the core of the problem between Canada and the UN,” Porter said.

Despite Canada’s record, De Schutter said he’s actually feeling hopeful as his Canadian missions comes to a close.

“I think it’s a serious difficulty that the UN human rights bodies, who sit in Geneva and New York and can’t do much to change things if the government is reluctant to effectively implement those recommendations. I have, however, one advantage over those committees, which is that I am present in the country,” De Schutter.

“I believe that there is now such a large coalition of groups coming from different sectors of society in Canada, that pressure from below can be exercised.”

Diana Bronson certainly saw this on display during the 11-day mission. The executive director of Food Secure Canada attended De Schutter meetings in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg, and was amazed that people had to be turned away because the level of interest was so high.

Plus, De Schutter will be back in Canada for a followup visit to assess progress in tackling hunger and food insecurity.

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