The United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG)
During the week of February 22, 2016, I represented the Metro Toronto Chinese and South East Asian Legal Clinic (MTCSALC), along with Clinic Director Avvy Go, to make submissions at the 57th Session of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) for their 10 year review of Canada. In addition to written submissions, we made the trip across the pond to Geneva, Switzerland, in order to provide oral submissions to the CESCR.
As Steering Committee members of Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change (COP-COC) – the provincial racial justice education and advocacy network in Ontario – the MTCSALC partnered with other racial justice seeking organizations such as the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) to make joint submissions to the CESCR.
The joint submissions focused primarily on 4 areas:
1. Income and Employment Disparities Facing First Peoples and Peoples of Colour and the Racialization of Poverty;
2. Migrant Workers’ Rights;
3. Family Reunification and Conditional Permanent Resident Status for Sponsored Spouses; and
4. Support for Community Organizations, and Programs, Policies and Infrastructure that advance Racial Equity, Human Dignity and Social Justice
Geneva – the city of the global citizen
Geneva is one of the world’s foremost centres of international diplomacy and politics. It is home of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), which is the second largest UN office site in the world, next to UN headquarters in New York City. UNOG is situated in the beautiful and austere Palais Des Nations, home of the now defunct and oft-criticized League of Nations (1919–1946). In addition to UNOG, several others prominent international organizations call Geneva home, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Labour Organization, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Médicins Sans Frontières.
Given its position as an international hub, Geneva reflects a wide variety of different cultures and languages. Most of the inhabitants speak multiple languages fluently. Situated in the western part of Switzerland, near the Franco-Swiss Border, French is the primary language of choice. However, English and certain languages like German are frequently spoken there as well.
Touching down in Geneva, the first thing that caught my attention was the incredibly developed public transportation system. At the airport, there were machines which issued 80 minute free transit passes for use anywhere in Geneva, including trains from the airport to the city centre. Furthermore, most hotels also issue free city-wide transit passes which cover the duration of your stay. The Swiss government makes painstaking effort to ensure that you can get around their dazzling array of trains, trams, and buses easily and cheaply.
The second thing that caught my attention was no doubt how expensive everything was. While I had been warned about this prior to arrival, it was another thing to live it. Meals around $30 CAD were considered extremely cheap and affordable accommodation was quite difficult to come by. I was too afraid to even dip my toe into shopping for fear that sticker shock would send me to a nearby hospital.
The third thing I discovered about Geneva was how truly global the city was. Although Toronto perhaps sets the standard in terms of actual multicultural representation, everything in Geneva was tailored towards the international. Signs, restaurants, schools, and attitudes all tilt toward a global understanding of issues and a conscious effort to break away from a solely domestic focus.
This thought was crystallized when I walked out of the Museum of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent after a spellbinding tour of the history of the international humanitarian effort. A pair of primary school students approached me, along with their supervising teacher. They had set up a tripod and camera just outside the entrance and were interviewing visitors. As they explained their school project, I responded in my broken French that English would probably be a more comfortable language to converse in. The little girl seamlessly transitioned to English and asked considerably insightful questions which spoke to the heart of how Geneva wanted to educate their next generation:
- Is the world becoming more peaceful?
- What are the most important things for a durable peace?
- How can we settle ongoing wars?
- What can the people of Geneva do to aid in these efforts?
If only I had the answers.
How many NGOs can you squeeze into a clown car?
In total, there were around 30 NGOs from Canada alone which had representatives make the trip to Geneva in hopes of appealing to the UN. More specifically, they were there to get their issues heard by the 18 members of the CESCR, who then would presumably turn around and question the Canadian delegation on these issues over 2 days and a mere 6 total hours of review. Therefore, there were essentially 3 parties to the process: the dozen or so members of the Canadian delegation to the UN, the 30+ Canadian NGOs, and the 18 committee members. Observing the interplay between these 3 groups was extremely interesting and illuminating.
Of course, each NGO has its own set of issues that it wishes to convey to the CESCR. On the ground, the channel in which NGOs communicate these issues to the committee is highly informal. In these informal sessions, the total time available was essentially boiled down to three total hours over two days, one hour of which was blocked off for questions on the part of the committee members.
So let’s do the math. 2 hours is 120 minutes, which, if we assume there are around 30 different NGOs, leaves us with about 4 minutes each. Then within each NGO or coalition of NGOs, there may be multiple speakers, so let’s say around 1-2 minutes roughly for each speaker. There is also transition time between each speaker, so around 10-15 seconds is usually deducted from each speaker on the ground. So maybe we are looking at around 45-90 seconds per speaker in total.
Then consider the enormity of the issues that need to be covered regarding economic, social, and cultural issues in Canada. They include, non-exhaustively: poverty, discrimination, social assistance, immigration, environment, indigenous issues, gender issues, racial issues, health and disability issues, justiciability of ESC rights, employment and labour issues, and so on and so forth. Each issue alone would be more than deserving of a whole week of sitting down with committee members to go over. Trying to somehow cover these massive issues between 30 some NGOs within a 120 minute time block is a mammoth task.
A light-hearted moment during an organizational meeting among Canadian NGOs
Unsurprisingly in this context, NGOs have a natural inclination to jostle and contest for limited space to convey their particular issues. They also have to figure out how to prioritize main points in their agenda that they hope will be taken up by the committee in their questions to the Canadian delegation and in their final recommendations.
The art of back-channeling therefore (as it is with so many other forums at the UN) is a critical skill that delegates must learn in order to maximize the effectiveness of their time in Geneva. Questions arise such as: which committee member covers which areas of the covenant? How can we contact and communicate with them? What ideas are they receptive to? How should we frame our pitch to them? What results, in the end, are we trying to achieve? Those NGOs that have experience in this area, previous familiarity with committee members and the process, or other insider information will therefore enjoy greater exposure vis-à-vis NGOs who lack in these areas. They also wield more power and influence in framing the direction of the discussion.
In the end, for our coalition, much of this was learned on the fly. We managed to get certain issues in the minds of certain committee members, but not others. Our original agenda of 4 items essentially shrunk down to 2 items for oral presentation due to time and other constraints. There were also unexpected issues that arose, such as the difficulty of some in the international human rights community to understand the concept of ‘racialized communities’ or ‘peoples of colour’ that were at the heart of our arguments on socioeconomic disparities and migrant worker challenges.
Once Wednesday afternoon rolled around, it was show time. With the Canadian NGO delegation present as well as press corps, the committee’s review of Canada began. In a sign of times, various organizations began live tweeting the proceedings.
The review procedure also revealed practical difficulties – the 18 committee members each had their own questions which they wanted the Canadian delegation to respond to. In fact, the majority of the time spent during the official review was getting through all (rather, most) of the questions that the committee members wish to pose.
The Canadian UN delegation had a difficult task in trying to respond to this rapid-fire, shotgun type questioning. Some of the questioning had been prepared for, but some of the questioning had caught them off guard and required additional time to formulate a response. In the end, many of the responses were essentially canned responses that listed off programs and initiatives that Canada was engaged in but did not really answer the specific question put forth.
One of the key themes surrounding this 57th CESCR session was how different the Federal government’s attitude was toward the UN review in comparison to 2006, when the Conservative government essentially treated the review as a waste of time and engaged in widespread denial of any allegations or hard questioning thrown their way.
The new attitude was exemplified by the friendly banter between the Canadian delegation and Olivier de Schutter, the former UN Special Rapporteur for Food Security, who, after a review of Canada in 2012, was targeted by the Conservative government in a series of scathing and often personal attacks.
One committee member took up one of our points and asked whether the Federal government would work towards expanding mandatory employment equity beyond the 12% of Canada’s workforce currently under the scheme. However, the question seemed to be lost in the sea of other many pressing issues and the Canadian delegation did not (or chose not to) respond to it.
Our concerns surrounding the extreme vulnerability and exploitation of migrant workers was also raised by the CESCR, but struck down by the Canadian delegation when they responded that these workers had all the same employment protections as other Canadian workers, which was a blanket denial of realities on the ground more reminiscent of the Harper days than of Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’.
Ultimately, the Canadian delegation, primarily given its time constraints, either ignored or glossed over vast swaths of questions – something that we anticipate will be brought up when the UN CESCR puts out its concluding observations sometime in early March.
See you next time…
After the end of the six hours of grilling, it was all love. NGOs patted themselves on the back for bringing important issues to the international stage, the UN CESCR was happy that Canada had finally adopted an attitude different from the dismissive denial of the Harper years, and the Canadian delegation was happy that it had brought some prestige back to its international profile.
Still, there is was an unshakable feeling that stuck with me as I left the Palais des Nations for the last time. What were the fruits of all of our efforts? Given the lack of enforcement mechanisms for international covenants, was all this effort worth it to shine a brief spotlight on Canada’s record? Or was it just a waste of time and resources?
If there is an argument for the value of this ultimately non-binding, ‘name and shame’ type of exercise, it is because there are two things that NGOs can take from the process: (1) leverage and (2) legitimacy.
There is no doubt that the mere the process of the CESCR 10 year review acts as a natural catalyst for international and domestic political forces. Canada’s review brought certain key issues to the table: poverty, housing, social assistance, employment rights, indigenous issues, racial justice, gender issues, etc., in a way that provided a narrative that could easily be digested and understood by the public. What was Canada’s record in fulfilling economic, social, and cultural rights and what areas still needed to be addressed?
NGOs used various methods to take full advantage of this moment: #CESCR2016 was trending on twitter, there was significant press coverage, videos, photos, all shared far and wide. In that sense, the work put into the CESCR could be used to leverage the message of civil society – disparate as some of those messages may have been.
There is also a legitimizing effect of having a respected moral authority like the UN take up domestic issues that may have previously been ignored in that country. This is particularly important for NGOs working at the forefront of contemporary political issues – our issue of racial justice certainly fit in this oft-ignored category.
The post of the UN Secretary General has been previously described as that of a ‘Secular Pope’ – and the UN’s various organs also carry some of that moral suasion and prestige. To have a grassroots-based organization or initiative put forward issues through the international human rights lens and then have that message come out from members of a UN committee has the effect of legitimizing it – turning the issue from a potential fringe issue that could be easily dismissed into international legal obligations that Canada must fulfill. The effect of such a process should not be underestimated, although in the end much depends on the willingness of the domestic government to put any weight on UN recommendations. This is where civil society must come in to hold government accountable.
Ultimately, it came time to pack my bags and leave Neverland for the real world. Still, it was exciting to leave with the knowledge that there is a city in this cynical world where the idealists still hold sway and the vision of global harmony still reigns supreme. As an infamous and influential man once noted: “man’s dream will never die.”
Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic