How Canada Works with the United Nations


Since the foundation of the United Nations (UN), Canada has been firmly committed to the promotion of human rights within Canada and in the world. It has been said that UN conventions do not legislate rights, but recognize them and build upon them, principally by using moral suasion, education and public opinion. In this light, countries with good human rights records, like Canada, have a special responsibility: to contribute to this worldwide effort, not only by constantly affirming and protecting the rights of their own people, but by being seen to do so.

In the decades following the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Canada's domestic and international human rights policies have been closely intermeshed, as evidenced by the support given by Canada internally and externally to international human rights instruments of the United Nations.

Canada is a party to the seven principal United Nations human rights conventions and covenants. Upon ratifying each of these instruments, Canada agreed to implement them, to monitor implementation and to report periodically to the UN. Following is a brief description of how these functions are carried out.

International Instruments and the Federal System

Under Canada's federal constitution, powers are divided among federal, provincial and territorial governments, each of which has the power to legislate upon matters that directly affect various aspects of human rights. This division of powers must be taken into account in the ratification and implementation by Canada of international human rights treaties and in reporting on them.

According to Canada's constitution, the federal government has the exclusive power to ratify international treaties. Legally, the federal government does not need the agreement or approval of any other jurisdiction in order to proceed to such ratification. However, the federal government does not have the power to legislate in matters of provincial jurisdiction in order to fulfill any international obligations that it may have undertaken. In other words, the federal government cannot use the signing of an international convention as a way of impinging on provincial or territorial powers. Provinces and territories must cooperate willingly in the implementation of treaties and conventions. Consequently, full participation in international instruments requires that the federal, provincial and territorial governments work closely together at all stages, from the preparatory work preceding ratification, and on to subsequent implementation and periodic reporting.

Federal-provincial-territorial cooperation was facilitated in 1975 by a Federal-Provincial Conference of Ministers Responsible for Human Rights. The assembled ministers formally agreed (December 12, 1975) to establish procedures for ratification, implementation and reporting on international human rights instruments. Among the main provisions of the agreement were:

  • that federal, provincial and territorial governments would undertake consultations prior to the ratification or denunciation by Canada of any international human rights instrument;

  • that each provincial and territorial government would have the right to prepare its own report on its human rights activities; these provincial and territorial contributions, in addition to the federal government's own section, would constitute Canada's reports. The federal government, acting in concert with the provinces, would continue to have the overall responsibility for the presentation of reports to the United Nations;

  • that provinces and territories could, if so desired, have a representative as part of any Canadian delegation to an international meeting on Canada's reports, notably to UN meetings in which Canada's reports are reviewed;

  • that, in the event of criticism by an international body of a provincial or territorial law or institution, provinces and territories could, in consultation with the federal government and other provinces and territories, have the opportunity to explain and defend its law or institutions; and,

  • that provinces and territories would be kept regularly informed of international developments in human rights that could be of concern to their jurisdiction.


The 1975 agreement provided for the periodic holding of ministerial conferences on human rights to exchange information and to discuss issues of interest. To ensure continuity, the agreement also provided for the creation of a federal-provincial-territorial Continuing Committee of Officials on Human Rights, to meet regularly (currently twice yearly) as a permanent mechanism for coordination and collaboration regarding the ratification and the domestic implementation of international human rights instruments.

The Committee's mandate, which was amended in 1988, is to:

  • encourage information exchange among governments in Canada with respect to the interpretation and implementation of international human rights instruments and related programs;

  • facilitate the preparation of reports on the implementation of international human rights instruments as required by these instruments, as well as others reports requested by the United Nations;

  • provide views, when possible and where appropriate, with respect to the development of Canada's positions on international human rights issues;

  • encourage research on issues related to the development and implementation of international human rights instruments; and,

  • participate in the preparation and follow-up of ministerial conferences on human rights.

The Committee, as a whole, can make recommendations to ministers responsible for human rights, but does not make commitments for any government. Federal, provincial and territorial officials represent their governments on the Committee and report to their respective ministers.

The Human Rights Program acts as the permanent secretariat for the Continuing Committee and as the main governmental information-exchange gateway between the international and the domestic human rights scenes, and between the federal, provincial and territorial governments.