Canada is throwing its hat in the ring for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, pledging to advance issues from online speech to access to abortion.
“There is a clear backlash happening around the world as we speak when it comes to human rights,” Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told reporters Tuesday afternoon.
“We just can’t stand idle, just screaming from the sides, saying basically that we should be doing something, without rolling up our sleeves and getting involved.”
Canada is running to sit on the council for 2028 to 2030, through a vote that will likely take place in 2026.
The council investigates alleged human-rights breaches in UN states, committed by governments or societal actors. It also issues reports on human-rights issues in general, such as Iran’s ongoing crackdown on women’s rights.
Ms. Joly said Canada is running on a bid that will highlight six main priorities, including holding states accountable for locking up human-rights activists.
Advancing gender equality, LGBTQ rights, sexual health and reproductive rights will also be the focus of Canada’s candidacy.
Canada plans to echo the Harper government’s focus on freedom of religious beliefs, while tying it to anti-racism programs and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples worldwide.
So far, Greece has announced a run for one of the three spots that will be available to a group of 28 countries includes Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Ms. Joly will push for a focus on human rights online, building on the Freedom Online Coalition, a group that advocates for people to express themselves online and have their privacy protected.
“We need to make sure that people online, and also when it comes to using [artificial intelligence], are protected and that these technologies don’t hurt human rights,” she said.
Ottawa will likely also push to regulate platforms that have been used to instigate violence. For example, anti-Rohingya riots in Myanmar have been linked to inflammatory falsehoods circulating on Facebook.
Another part of the bid will be about responding to climate change in a way that protects people who face the brunt of shifting weather patterns and continuing work to reform global financing for smaller countries who face frequent natural disasters.
Ms. Joly said Canada plans to strike a note of learning from other countries.
“We approach this goal with ambition but also with humility. We’re not perfect and we’re working every day to become better,” she said.
The council’s last assessment of Canada in 2018 found Ottawa is not living up to its own human-rights obligations, such as fixing disparities in the criminal justice system and providing equitable services to Indigenous people. The council also noted Ottawa had not signed onto a global anti-torture convention.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said Canada is an imperfect country that would put Indigenous issues as a priority if it were part of the council.
“Reconciliation isn’t only a priority. It’s a moral obligation,” he said. “We should not be afraid to speak about this on the world stage, as painful as this is.”
The NDP said it supports Canada’s bid but the government needs to do more at home and abroad, criticizing recent cuts to foreign aid, arm sales to Saudi Arabia and the treatment of Indigenous people.
“Indigenous people still need to heal from intergenerational trauma, and sadly are forced to fight the Liberal government to deliver meaningful investments in clean drinking water and suitable housing that should be considered fundamental human rights,” NDP foreign-affairs critic Heather McPherson said in an e-mail.
Canada is making a deliberate choice to engage in a flawed agency as a means to bring about change through multilateral institutions.
Groups such as Human Rights Watch have been critical of the council for “electing serious rights abusers like Cameroon, Eritrea and the United Arab Emirates” to its ranks.
Russia left the Geneva-based body after UN members voted to end its membership shortly after Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
“We know that the council faces many challenges and some actors are trying to use this forum not to advance human rights, but to suppress them. This is exactly why Canada needs to be at the table,” Ms. Joly said in French.
In 2020, the Trudeau government lost its bid for the UN Security Council after a years-long push to rejoin that body.
Ms. Joly suggested her party has taken a lesson from that defeat, putting a longer-term effort into this bid and having more of a visible presence in UN bodies.
“We’ve learned that we need to make sure that we’re taking the time and making sure that also we show up and that we have a strong voice within the UN and within the entire multilateral system.”
Canada last sat on the human-rights council from 2006 to 2009.