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FAAE Committee Report

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Many human rights defenders (HRDs) risk their safety and that of their families to speak out against injustice. Women who do so face even greater risks – simply because of their gender.  Many women human rights defenders (WHRDs) take up their causes knowing that their work will negatively impact their lives. They face the risk of sexual assault, threats to their family and efforts to smear their reputations, often based on gender stereotypes. They face threats and resistance not only from the targets of their activism such as the state or the private sector, but also from their own communities and families. These WHRDs are often failed by state institutions. Political institutions can be hostile to women in many respects, and impunity for crimes committed against WHRDs often prevails. In many places where civil society is under threat, women-led organizations are particularly vulnerable to state pressure. WHRDs who face intersecting forms of discrimination, such as indigenous or LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersex) persons, are at even greater risk.

To foster WHRDs’ important work, Canada and the international community must directly acknowledge and address gender-specific obstacles to participation in human rights activism. To further that goal, over the course of six meetings in Spring 2019, the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (the Subcommittee) heard from indigenous land rights defenders, parliamentarians, lawyers, public health workers and other advocates, working in the Americas, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The Subcommittee salutes their courage and thanks them for sharing their personal, and often heartbreaking, stories.

Despite their differing circumstances, witnesses shared common cause. They told the Subcommittee that the best way for Canada to support WHRDs abroad is to bolster their work and to foster a strong, secure and independent civil society. In this spirit, the Subcommittee makes four recommendations. All are founded on the idea that any support that does not account for gender-specific threats will fail WHRDs and civil society at large. The Subcommittee recommends that the Government of Canada, in conjunction with international partners, develop an action plan to mount a comprehensive effort to protect WHRDs and promote their work. The action plan should include: funding for WHRDs’ organizations; establishing meaningful partnerships with Canada’s diplomatic missions; meeting the needs of WHRDs in peril including through tailored immigration processes; enhancing Canada’s existing guidelines for protecting HRDs by establishing indicators and benchmarks for evaluation; and empowering diplomatic missions to proactively monitor the situations of WHRDs. GAC should promote this action plan among communities of WHRDs around the world, so they know what they can expect from Canada. The action plan should be complemented by bilateral and multilateral engagement towards combatting impunity and supporting justice reform. GAC should make every effort to ensure that Canadian businesses respect human rights, particularly through the office of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise. Finally, the Subcommittee recommends that the Government of Canada’s foreign policy choices be consistent with the goals of promoting WHRDs’ participation in public life and institutions.

Witnesses told the Subcommittee that previous gains made by women’s movements are being reversed, threatening their own security and the strength of civil society. Overconfidence and complacency, one witness noted, had left her community ill-equipped to deal with resurgent misogyny and its consequences. Witnesses called on Canada to be vigilant. The enjoyment of human rights depends on the strength of those who stand up to defend them. WHRDs do not need more courage. They need better support.