International Assistance Review: an opportunity for Canada to stand up for human rights abroad

When International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau took up her post in November 2015, she was tasked with leading Canada’s efforts to “provide humanitarian assistance to help reduce poverty and inequality in the world” and refocusing Canada’s development assistance “on helping the poorest and most vulnerable.” This renewed focus on marginalized communities must underlie the current review of Canada’s international assistance efforts and shape its approach to implementing the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.

In July 2016, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network contributed to Canada’s International Assistance Review, a process in which the government sought views from experts, partners and engaged citizens as it develops a new international assistance policy, funding and delivery framework. Our submission emphasized the importance of human rights in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by addressing the discrimination, exclusion and powerlessness that lie at the root of poverty and other obstacles to sustainable development, as well as the interdependence of human rights and the SDGs.

In recent years, Canada’s overall commitment to international development has reached alarmingly low levels. In 2015, Canada’s official development assistance rested at less than 0.28 percent of overall GDP — far below the UN target of 0.7 percent. In 2014, Canada’s percentage contribution of GDP to overseas development assistance placed the country 16th among the 28 donor countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for which data was available. Canada’s funding for programming related to international democracy, governance and human rights fell by 28 percent between 2008–2009 and 2013–2014 alone.

While calling on Canada to raise its official development assistance from the current level to the UN target of 0.7 percent and to continue to scale up its contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, the Legal Network’s submission also highlighted our main concerns around the following issues: (i) the global response to HIV/AIDS, including the need to strengthen key agencies and institutions in that response; (ii) access to medicines and other health technologies; (iii) drug policy and the rights of people who use drugs; (iv) the rights of LGBTI people; and (v) the rights of sex workers.

In the face of withering attention to human rights and to key populations in the HIV epidemic, we urged the Canadian government to:

  • Support civil society organizations, UN agencies and States to protect and fulfil the rights of all persons living with and vulnerable to HIV by prohibiting all forms of discrimination, eliminating legislation and law enforcement practices that criminalize people living with and vulnerable to HIV, and ensuring full respect for the right to health;
  • Provide longer-term and multi-country funding opportunities for civil society organizations, including those working with key populations such as people who use drugs, LGBTI people and sex workers, to conduct critical human rights research, advocacy and service delivery; and
  • Reject laws and policies, including international trade agreements, intellectual property laws, and laws that criminalize same-sex relations, sex work and drug use, that impede access to medicines and to health care, thus undermining the impact of Canada’s development assistance.

The Legal Network will continue to press Canada to implement the recommendations set out in this submission in developing its plan of action for implementing the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.

With this review, the government has an opportunity to demonstrate real leadership in promoting a new agenda of global interdependence that foregrounds our shared interests in advancing these issues. If the international community is to meet the SDG target of ending AIDS, Canada must play its part — through both its development assistance and its broader foreign policy initiatives — to keep pace with the transformative ambitions of the post-2015 agenda and ensure that no one is left behind.