The Withering of Human Rights: Proposals to Counter Forced Displacement, Gender-Based Violence, Corruption and Other Human Rights Violations

World Refugee & Migration Council Member Allan Rock spoke at Montreal’s Concordia University for the Henri Habib Distinguished Speakers Series on 4 April 2023.

Read Allan Rock’s five objectives for Canada’s international efforts to counter human rights violations:

  1. Challenge the legality of P5 vetoes to restore the Security Council’s ability to act in defense of populations threatened by or subjected to mass atrocity. 
  2. Pursue accountability for Russia arising from its unlawful invasion of Ukraine by advocating the confiscation and re-purposing of Russian assets and the creation of a global reconstruction fund for post-war Ukraine. 
  3. Promote measures to deal with the plague of gender-based violence, including the adoption of Every Woman’s Treaty dealing with men’s violence against women and girls.
  4. Given the close connection between corruption and the weakening of human rights, work to establish the International Anti-Corruption Court as an effective way to reduce the global scourge of corruption.
  5. Work to revitalize and restore the ancient right to seek asylum at a time when it is denied as never before.


I begin with words of gratitude for the invitation to speak here today. 

It is a deeply felt honour to participate in the Henri Habib Speakers Series, not only because of the distinguished Canadians who have taken part in years past, but also because of the remarkable person for whom this series is named. 

Henri Habib is a renowned scholar, a gifted teacher, and a brilliant academic leader. As founder and chair of the political science department at Loyola and then Concordia Universities, Dr. Habib laid the foundations and then oversaw the development of one of the leading departments in the country. 

As a member for many years of Concordia’s Board of Governors, he furnished insightful advice and direction as this University rose to its current level of prominence and prestige. And I am especially proud to note that Dr. Habib shares his expertise on my own campus as a Visiting Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Ottawa. His contributions to higher education in Canada have indeed been remarkable, and it is a privilege to be part of an event that bears his name.

The full title of this Speakers Series refers to “Peace, Conflict, and Global Politics in the 21st Century”. For an invitee, that leaves a broad choice of topics, and I must confess that several potential subjects came immediately to mind. 

But upon reflection I concluded that the way to make myself most useful for your purposes this evening is to address the dire state of human rights in today’s world and given the close connection between them, to speak as well of two related concerns: the diminishing of democracies and the erosion of the rule of law.

And in order not simply to present a distressing portrait of problems, I want also to set out specific ways I believe those problems can be addressed, and especially the role that our own country can play in that effort.

Human Rights

What do we speak of when we speak of human rights? The origins of the contemporary term can be traced to the period following the Second World War. The founding of the United Nations and the adoption of its Charter marked a turning point. The preamble to the Charter “reaffirmed our collective faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

Shortly after the Charter was adopted, member states of the UN also embraced specific instruments intended to declare the human rights to which the Charter referred and protect those rights against a repetition of WWII horrors.

The cornerstone was provided by what is sometimes called the “International Bill of Rights” comprising three instruments: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights UDHR) in 1948 (of which the Canadian John Humphrey was the principal author of the first draft), and then in 1966, the International Covenant on Civil, Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights. Taken together, those instruments declared the ambit of rights that attach to each human being and the expression of those rights in the various political, economic, and social contexts in which people live their lives.

After the UDHR, other principal instruments were produced in rapid succession:

  • The Genocide Convention (1948)
  • The Geneva Conventions (1949)
  • The Refugee Convention (1951)

And there followed in subsequent decades dozens of conventions, treaties, and their additional protocols, declaring and elaborating human rights in an ever-wider circle. These included the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (1965), the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the Convention Against Torture (1984), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006). 

For their part, UN member states increasingly moved beyond these global declarations to domestic codification, as human rights found expression and protection in national legislation, at least in the West. Here in Canada that expression took the form of the Canadian Bill of Rights, a statute adopted by Parliament in 1959. There followed the adoption of human rights codes, both federal and provincial, and later the establishment of commissions and tribunals to see to their enforcement. Ultimately, of course, the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrined human rights in our constitution as the “supreme law of the land”.

Democracy and the Rule of Law

As human rights evolved in the second half of the 20th century, democracy too was on the rise. Post-war decades saw, at last, the end of colonial domination, the emergence of new nation-states and later the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. By 2000, Freedom House (which measures such things) classified 120 states, or 63% of the world’s total, as democracies (albeit of varying degrees of quality).

Freedom House’s definition of democracy includes this:

In its ideal form, [democracy] is a governing system based on the will and consent of the governed, institutions that are accountable to all citizens, adherence to the rule of law, and respect for human rights. It is a network of mutually reinforcing structures in which those exercising power are subject to checks both within and outside the state, for example, from independent courts, an independent press, and civil society.

That definition illustrates the close connection between democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, which itself enjoyed a period of development in the 20th century. We must remember that at the same time as they adopted the UN Charter, member states also adopted a treaty establishing the International Court of Justice to adjudicate upon disputes between member states. That was clear evidence of the global desire to resort, in times of disagreement, to the courtroom rather than the battlefield.

Later in the century, and after several crimes of mass atrocity, efforts were made to end impunity and establish accountability for major international crimes. Special Tribunals were created by the UN Security Council for Sierra Leone, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Cambodia. Those tribunals proved to be effective, and the momentum they created eventually led to the adoption of the Rome Statute (1998) and the establishment of a new international institution: the International Criminal Court. 

A New World Order

At the close of the 20th century, there was reason for optimism as the end of the Cold War produced a “new world order” that was unipolar, multilateral, and no longer dependent on nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction. We dared to hope for a “peace dividend”, and some even spoke of “the end of history”. Russia emerged as a democracy, China became a member of the WTO, and free trade and globalization were expected to distribute prosperity to every region and to persuade China to choose cooperation over confrontation.

In those heady days, the UN Security Council functioned as never before. During Canada’s two-year term on the Council in 1999-2000, we focused successfully on the Human Security Agenda: Women, Peace and Security, Protection of Civilians, Children and Armed Conflict, and the Kimberley Process on Blood Diamonds. 

It was a time of progressive measures aimed at the strengthening of human rights. It culminated—and perhaps saw its last significant advance—with the unanimous adoption by all UN members states at the Global Summit of 2005, marking the UN’s 50th anniversary, of the principles of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P (incidentally another Canadian-led initiative) provided a way to reconcile state sovereignty on the one hand and, on the other, international intervention in a sovereign state to stop mass atrocity. R2P defined sovereignty as responsibility, and the first responsibility of any sovereign state is to protect its population from mass murder. It was agreed that the Security Council would act “in a timely and decisive manner” to protect populations threatened by mass atrocity.

The Momentum is Lost

Sadly, the momentum behind the late 20th century human rights revolution diminished and then largely disappeared within a few years of that Summit. Looking back, it’s possible to identify some of the many factors at play: 

  • the fallout from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 
  • the discord created by the illegal invasion of Iraq by the United States and its “coalition of the willing”, 
  • the global economic crisis of 2008,
  • the catastrophic civil war in Syria, the massive displacement it caused, and the backlash in Europe to the arrival of over a million migrants, 
  • Russia’s invasion of Crimea and expulsion from the G8,
  • China’s increased aggressiveness in Asia.

Amid the discord, the permanent members of the Security Council worked together less and less effectively, with the result that the Council’s role in protecting human rights globally declined. Despite the confident and unanimous assertions in 2005 about R2P, the Security Council has consistently failed to act in defence of populations facing mass atrocity. There was no protection for civilians slaughtered by their own government in Sri Lanka, or in Syria. Nor were the Rohingyas of Myanmar protected against the brutality of their military. Vetoes from Russia and China blocked the way. And despite the documented genocide of the Uighurs in China, no-one even imagines that Beijing would permit the subject to appear on the Council’s agenda.

The Rise of Authoritarianism

Meanwhile, unprecedented levels of forced displacement caused by conflict, bad governance and climate change put pressure on borders and gave populists and autocrats an issue to exploit for political gain. In the process, asylum seekers were demonized, and a “toxic narrative” accompanied refugees to wherever they fled.

Gradually, steadily, authoritarian governments took root in every region. By suppressing dissidents. Fixing elections. Undermining the rule of law. Jailing opponents. Denying freedom of expression. Promoting disinformation and lies.

The list of autocrats is long and depressing. Some are still in office while others are gone, but each has done their damage. Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Maduro in Venezuela, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Saied in Tunisia, El-Sisi in Egypt, Museveni in Uganda, the military in Myanmar, Lopez Obrador in Mexico, not to mention the Ayatollahs in Iran. 

Donald Trump rode to a stunning win in America by exploiting fear and anger and a deep-seated desire among Americans to throw over their establishment. His presidency damaged American democracy as it legitimized and gave licence to hate-mongers, undermined multilateralism, threatened the rules-based international order, weakened the Atlantic Alliance, and halted efforts to slow climate change. To this day — more than two years after he left office — the venomous dissension that he encouraged is fraying to the point of rupture whatever is left of social consensus in America.

And now the Taliban are back in Afghanistan, and Netanyahu is back in Israel, this time with no regard at all for securing a lasting peace in the region.

And as for “the big picture”? The Swedish-based and highly regarded V-Dem Institute in its 2022 annual report concluded as follows: 

Advances in global levels of democracy made over the last 35 years have been wiped out, and 72% of the world’s population — 5.7 billion people — live in autocracies by 2022… 

The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 is down to 1986 levels…Freedom of expression is deteriorating in 35 countries in 2022 – ten years ago it was only 7. Government censorship of the media is worsening in 47 countries. Government repression of civil society organizations is worsening in 37 countries. Quality of elections is worsening in 30 countries.

The annual report from Freedom House last year was just as discouraging:

Global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year… The struggle for democracy may be approaching a turning point… Infringement on freedom of expression has long been a key driver of global democratic decline.

Dramatic declines in political rights and civil liberties during 2022 were driven by direct assaults on democratic institutions, whether by foreign military forces or incumbent officials in positions of trust. War, coups d’état, and power grabs repeatedly posed an existential threat to elected governments around the world.

Gender-Based Violence

The plight of women and girls merits special mention. 

Women’s rights, as human rights, are threatened everywhere, with Iran and Afghanistan being only the most extreme examples. The UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed observed in June of last year that “There has been an unprecedented increase in all forms of gender-based violence.” 

And let’s be clear: we speak here of violence by men against women. 

At least one in three women — more than 640 million women globally — experience intimate partner violence or sexual violence in their lifetimes, a scourge the World Health Organization describes as “devastatingly pervasive.” Yet rather than declining, violence against women and girls is an escalating human rights crisis that is made worse by global challenges such as Covid-19, climate change, war, and abusive uses of technology. 

The litany of abuse and exploitation is appalling and calls for an effective and coordinated global response.

Other Abuses

As to other abuses, in both Canada and the United States, hate-motivated crime is at record levels. White supremacy is shamelessly and openly promoted. Racism and anti-Semitism threaten public peace. Rights under attack include women’s right to choose, while LGBTQ+ rights are being threatened and there is an orchestrated attack in particular on trans rights. 

Some US state governments are banning books and attacking school curricula. One governor has openly campaigned against “wokeism”, which he sees in any effort to respect minority rights.

Courage Under Fire

Despite everything, brave individuals protest and resist. 

Among the most prominent is Russia’s Alexander Navalny, but others have stood up and stood out.

Maria Ressa in the Philippines. The women of Afghanistan and Iran. Those citizens of China, including Hong Kong, who bravely protested against their government’s policies. Israelis marching in the streets to object to Netanyahu’s weakening of democracy and the Rule of Law. Rights advocates and journalists in Belarus.

This is the question we must ask ourselves: What can we do to encourage and support them? 

Canada and the World

Canada has had a long history of constructive global engagement. Our record for conceiving, promoting, and achieving meaningful change internationally is one to be proud of. 

What is sometimes called the “Pearsonian tradition” involves Canada contributing through the currency of good ideas, combined with a subtle and effective diplomacy, an attitude of humility and an ability to work among all nations towards solutions. 

As a member of almost every multilateral “club”, we have an extensive network for our advocacy. And the pantheon of distinguished Canadians who have made enduring contributions to the cause of human rights includes Stephen Lewis, Romeo Dallaire, Louise Arbour, Louise Frechette, Lloyd Axworthy and of course Irwin Cotler.

Canadians are natural multilateralists. As a “middle power” we recognize that our strengths are not military or economic but involve our capacity to bring people together and persuade them to accept good ideas.

Despite setbacks (including consecutive failed Security Council candidacies), the “Canada brand” enjoys residual influence. And what is crucial is that Canadians want our country to achieve on the international scene. We take great pride in past accomplishments and look to our leaders to have Canada make a difference.

What Canada Can Do to Advance Human Rights Agenda

The first important step we can take is to show leadership by example. There are many ways in which Canada can improve its own human rights record. In particular,

  • The rights of Indigenous peoples are still diminished by decades of structural and systemic discrimination.
  • Indigenous women and girls disproportionately experience physical and sexual assault, just as
  • Indigenous offenders comprise a disproportionate percentage of our prison population.
  • Canada has now doubled down on the unjust and unnecessary Safe Third Country Agreement, effectively denying refugee protection along our own border. 
  • Immigration detention subjects migrants and asylum seekers to abusive conditions that are too often endured in provincial prisons—frequently in solitary confinement and for indefinite periods.
  • Canadian companies in the extractive industries are responsible for far too many instances of human rights abuses in the places they operate.

We must address these and other failings if we are to be credible advocates for improvements elsewhere.

Beyond our shores, the challenges facing the international community are prodigious. And the current plight of human rights world-wide presents complexities and hurdles that Canada alone cannot resolve. We cannot do “everything, everywhere, all at once”. But we can pick our spots and promote constructive change through efforts that draw on our strengths. We have a government committed to human rights, an activist and capable Minister of Foreign Affairs, and an excellent and highly effective ambassador at the United Nations in New York. Some of the objectives I will identify for urgent action this evening are well suited to engage Ambassador Bob Rae’s energies and talents. I call upon our government to instruct him accordingly, and to support him in this work.

This evening, I propose five specific objectives that I suggest for Canada’s international efforts.

  1. Challenge the legality of P5 vetoes to restore the Security Council’s ability to act in defense of populations threatened by or subjected to mass atrocity. 
  2. Pursue accountability for Russia arising from its unlawful invasion of Ukraine by advocating the confiscation and re-purposing of Russian assets and the creation of a global reconstruction fund for post-war Ukraine. 
  3. Promote measures to deal with the plague of gender-based violence, including the adoption of Every Woman’s Treaty dealing with men’s violence against women and girls.
  4. Given the close connection between corruption and the weakening of human rights, work to establish the International Anti-Corruption Court as an effective way to reduce the global scourge of corruption.
  5. Work to revitalize and restore the ancient right to seek asylum at a time when it is denied as never before.

First: The Legality of P5 Vetoes

The Security Council is the most powerful of all UN organs. The UN Charter invests it with immense authority as well as grave responsibilities. Among other things, the Council is empowered to determine the existence of a threat to peace, and then to decide what measures are to be taken to maintain or restore it, including, if necessary, action by air, sea or land forces.

There are few threats to the peace more urgent and compelling than the possibility of mass atrocity. When the Council becomes aware that genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity are in progress or in prospect, it has both the duty and the means to stop it. 

Indeed, in 2005, in the shadow of the Rwandan genocide, still feeling the shame engendered by our failure to stop it, UN member states unanimously acknowledged and accepted our collective responsibility to prevent and, if necessary to stop mass atrocity, and unanimously agreed that they would do so, “in a timely and decisive manner” through the Security Council.

Our experience since, of course, tells a different story.

Genocide committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar. The governments of Syria and Sri Lanka slaughtered thousands of their own citizens. The government of the People’s Republic of China has committed genocide against the Uighurs. And there has been no collective response by the Security Council. Nor has the Council exercised its authority to refer to the International Criminal Court allegations of mass atrocity crimes in these cases.

The reason in each instance for the Council’s inaction? The veto.

Professor Jennifer Trahan of New York University’s faculty of law recently published a book that sets out a scholarly and compelling analysis of the legality of P5 vetoes when exercised in cases of mass atrocity. And she proposes that the General Assembly should adopt a resolution referring the legal question of the legality of the vetoes to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion.

Professor Trahan develops three separate arguments to support her contention that P5 vetoes in cases of mass atrocity are unlawful.

First, she explains that international law is organized in a hierarchical structure, with some laws having priority over others. That is, some are of a more fundamental and compelling nature than others that deal with more peripheral matters. At the very apex of the hierarchy are certain laws that receive the highest level of protection in the international system, in that no derogations may be permitted from them. For convenience, I will refer to them here as “apex laws”. These apex laws include the prohibition against genocide, crimes against humanity and at least certain war crimes. In the international law hierarchy, the apex laws sit above the P5 veto power, which is conferred by the UN Charter. The UN is bound to respect apex laws and therefore its principal organ, the Security Council, is similarly constrained. All UN member states are also obligated to respect the apex laws. It follows that the P5 are obligated to respect apex laws, both as members of the Security Council and as members of the UN. The conclusion? The actions of the P5, including their use of the veto, 

(a) must not be used so as to facilitate violations of the apex laws; 

(b) must not undermine or block other Security Council members as they seek to respond to a breach by another state of the apex laws; and 

(c) must be consistent with the apex laws.

The second argument arises from the UN Charter itself, which limits Security Council power by stating (in Article 24 (2)) that the Council must act in accordance with the purposes and principles of the UN. Those purposes and principles in turn (as set out in Articles 1 and 2 of the Charter) include:

  • Respecting principles of justice and international law.
  • Promoting and encouraging respect for human rights.
  • Cooperation in solving international problems of a humanitarian character. And
  • Good faith.

The argument is that P5 vetoes exercised to defeat a response to mass atrocity are clearly not in accordance with these principles, and therefore are not a lawful exercise of authority by a member of the Security Council.

Finally, Professor Trahan’s third argument is based on the treaty obligations of each member of the Security Council, including the P5. Each member of the P5 is a party to both the Genocide Convention and the Geneva Conventions. The P5 do not cease to be bound by their treaty obligations simply because they are members of the Council. These treaties impose certain obligations, such as the duty to “prevent and to punish” genocide, to prosecute grave breaches of — and to respect sand ensure respect for — the Geneva Conventions. Any veto that allows the continued perpetration of genocide or grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions — or blocks prosecution of these crimes — would run afoul of the P5 member’s treaty obligations.

So those are the arguments. They are very attractive. By urging the General Assembly to refer these issues to the ICJ for an advisory opinion, Professor Trahan suggests a means for obtaining an influential and persuasive pronouncement that might inhibit future abuses by P5 states of their veto in cases of mass atrocity.

An advisory opinion would be just that: advice, and not a binding judgment. But any such opinion, if it were to be adverse to the P5 veto, would carry enormous moral authority.

That is why Canada should take the lead in urging member states in the GA to support a referral of these issues to the ICJ.

Second: Accountability for Russia’s invasion: Advocate the Confiscation and Repurposing of Russian Assets to Create a Reconstruction Fund for Ukraine

Holding Vladimir Putin and Russia to account for the unlawful invasion of Ukraine is a task with many dimensions. These include investigations and prosecutions in the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as the efforts supported by Canada and others to create a Special Tribunal to prosecute Russia for the crime of aggression.

But there is the financial dimension as well. Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine has already caused billions of dollars of damage to private and public property. The value of that loss will only increase as the war continues. Thousands of lives have been lost, millions of citizens have been displaced and millions more have lost their livelihoods and families. Ukraine has commenced a proceeding against Russia in the ICJ claiming reparations for those massive losses. But there is also a way that the international community can assist in securing funds for Ukraine’s reconstruction and to compensate those Ukrainians who have suffered loss.

The concept of state confiscation and repurposing of frozen assets originated with the World Refugee and Migration Council, which in 2019 proposed that governments should seek court approval for confiscation in certain circumstances. The Government of Canada accepted that recommendation in the context of the Ukraine invasion. In June of 2022, our Parliament adopted legislation setting out the following purpose:

The purpose of this Act is to enable the Government of Canada to take economic measures against certain persons in circumstances where … a grave breach of international peace and security has occurred, gross and systematic human rights violations have been committed in a foreign state or acts of significant corruption involving a national of a foreign state have been committed.

The legislation goes on to provide that a court may order forfeiture of an asset owned or controlled by a foreign state or a national of a foreign state implicated in the human rights violations or corruption described above. After forfeiture, the Canadian government’s authority to deal with the forfeited assets is set out by describing the purposes for which the proceeds may be used:

  1. the reconstruction of a foreign state adversely affected by a grave breach of international peace and security.
  2. the restoration of international peace and security; and
  3. the compensation of victims of a grave breach of international peace and security, gross and systematic human rights violations or acts of significant corruption.

Russian assets — public and private — can and should be confiscated and repurposed pursuant to this legislation. Furthermore, they should be deposited into a global fund for Ukraine’s reconstruction and for compensation. The General Assembly should be asked to create a UN commission to oversee the retention of that fund and to administer pay-outs based on established and agreed criteria.

There is precedent for this approach. The UN set up a similar system for reviewing and paying out claims in the context of reconstructing Kuwait after the illegal invasion by Iraq in the early 1990’s. That process worked well. It should be repeated in Ukraine.

As to confiscating and repurposing Russian assets, each UN member state will have to adopt authorities necessary for the purpose, depending on their own domestic legal system and its requirements. Canada has led the way.

We should promote our approach to other UN member states, advocate for the creation of the global reconstruction fund for Ukraine and promote among UN member states a resolution in the General Assembly creating a UN commission to oversee the fund and supervise pay-outs.

Third: Measures to Deal with Men’s Violence Against Women

One of the most pervasive examples of the withering of human rights is the appalling incidence world-wide of violence against women and girls.

  • That violence is often related to displacement, abusive uses of technology and of course the pandemic, which has turned back the clock on women’s rights. In fact, 80% of member states responding to a UN survey reported that during Covid, there was an increase in calls to help-lines for intimate partner violence.
  • Girls are forced into early marriage; women are trafficked across borders and refugees are sexually assaulted in displacement camps.
  • Sexual violence remains endemic in conflict, disproportionately impacting women and girls and ruining lives and dignity, from Bucha in Ukraine, to Tigray province in Ethiopia, to the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond.
  • There is rampant rape in India, there are “honour killings” in Pakistan, and in Afghanistan and Iran, women are beaten for not wearing a hijab—or not wearing it “properly.”
  • Women and girls fleeing their countries due to violence, oppression or climate disasters are routinely abused, trafficked, exploited, and assaulted at checkpoints during their journey.
  • And here in Canada, the 2019 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls exposed a level of violence that we have still not meaningfully addressed.

And in all of this, there are the emboldening effects of impunity, with few consequences for the abuser.

Canada has not been silent in the face of these facts. Prime Minister Harper’s government promoted measures to denounce early and forced marriage. Canada championed the Security Council Resolution on Women Peace and Security and has named an ambassador to promote its application. For many years we have led the biannual resolution on violence against women at the UN Human Rights Council. And we have adopted a feminist foreign policy to ensure that the perspectives of women and girls are reflected in our approach.

But there is much more we can do, and I want to provide just one example.

Ten years ago, a group of women committed to addressing this sordid portrait met to identify practical tools for change. They resolved to create and promote a global treaty to address violence against women and girls, to attract the universality of international law to this universal challenge. As a result of their efforts, there are today over 2100 women’s rights advocates in 128 countries working actively to garner support for what they call the “Every Women’s Treaty”.

They argue persuasively that the existing legal and normative framework is inadequate. There are many instruments that speak of violence against women and girls, and they have had a positive effect, but they are not sufficient to respond to the need. The most prominent is the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But consider these points:

  • CEDAW deals with discrimination and has to that extent been hugely effective, but it does not address the issue of violence specifically.
  • Indeed, the words violence, rape, abuse, and assault do not appear in CEDAW.
  • The CEDAW framework misses the point that violence is not a form of discrimination: it is a human rights violation in and of itself. CEDAW puts the onus on the survivor to show that violence was rooted in discrimination.
  • CEDAW reports do not provide basic information about the extent of violence. And its individual complaint mechanism is inadequate in furnishing remedies.

The new treaty would provide standardized protection across the globe. It would clarify norms to prevent, protect, eliminate, and condemn violence against women and girls. It would provide a specific, metrics-based reporting framework, and track each state’s efforts against global benchmarks. It would establish an international monitoring body, require training and accountability for police officers, judges and health professionals, increase funding for survivor services such as shelters, hotlines and legal aid and prioritize violence prevention education.

And treaties work. They codify our expectations of nations and their duties: they go beyond “soft law” and voluntary statements to establish clear accountability, catalyse change, and drive legal and policy reform at the national level.

Momentum towards an “Every Woman’s Treaty” is growing. Active promotion in 110 countries has increased awareness and broadened the network of supporters. 

What is needed now is leadership. The treaty is drafted and ready for debate. Countries like the DRC, Nigeria, Columbia and Costa Rica have committed to the cause, as has the Secretary General of the Organization of American States. But where is the country with the resources, the experience and the stature to galvanize international support? To establish an inter-regional coalition, engage in negotiation and persuasion, plan and carry out the steps needed to go from drafting to adopting and ratifying?

Canada’s feminist foreign policy signals our commitment to gender equality and respect for women’s rights. We can act on that commitment and help deliver lives without violence for every woman and girl. We can deploy our diplomatic and political resources at the United Nations and in other multilateral settings, to rally the community of nations to this urgent and compelling cause. 

In short, Canada can become a champion for a treaty that will mark a fundamental change in the way the world responds to violence against women and girls.

Fourth: Establishment of the International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC)

Let me turn to the fourth of the projects I propose for Canada in addressing the erosion of human rights everywhere. It deals with the corrosive impact of corruption.

Grand corruption — the abuse of public office for private gain by a nation’s leaders (kleptocrats) — undermines and diminishes human rights in many ways: it is a major barrier to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, responding effectively to pandemics, fighting climate change, addressing forced displacement, promoting democracy, establishing international peace and security, and securing a more just, rules-based global order. It is not a victimless crime. Rather, it has devastating human consequences.

Grand corruption does not endure due to a lack of anti-corruption laws. There are 189 parties to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). 181 of them are states required by the Convention to have laws criminalizing various forms of corruption. However, corrupt heads of state and government, and many other corrupt senior government officials, have impunity in their own countries because they control the police, prosecutors, and courts. 

Currently, there is no international institution to hold kleptocrats accountable for their crimes of corruption when the countries that they rule are unwilling or unable to do so. An IACC would fill this crucial enforcement gap in the international framework for combating grand corruption. 

The IACC would:

  • Provide a forum to prosecute and punish kleptocrats and their transnational networks of professional enablers – including lawyers, bankers, accountants, real estate agents, and other service providers fairly and effectively.
  • Deter future grand corruption by establishing a credible threat of prosecution where such a threat does not currently exist for almost all kleptocrats and their co-conspirators.
  • Recover, repatriate and/or repurpose stolen assets for the benefit of the victims of grand corruption through orders of restitution or disgorgement, and possibly civil suits.
  • Make its expert investigators, prosecutors, and judges available to offer valuable advice and assistance to their counterparts in countries striving to improve their anti-corruption capacity.

The Court would have the authority to prosecute a head of state or government, anyone appointed by a head of state or government, and anyone who knowingly and intentionally assists one or more of them in the commission of a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court. 

Corruption is estimated to cost trillions of dollars annually, and grand corruption contributes greatly to that cost. The IACC would deter and reduce grand corruption, saving many countries enormous sums of money. It would also recover and either repatriate or repurpose stolen assets for the benefit of the victims of grand corruption.

Both the Liberal and Conservative parties included a commitment to the establishment of the IACC in their political platforms during the 2021 election. That objective is included in the mandate letter delivered by the Prime Minister to Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly. 

Canada has already participated in at least one high-level planning session with like-minded countries. The effort has slowed, however, and — given the many major concerns at present in international relations — there is a danger that this priority will slip from view. 

Once again, what is needed is leadership. In defense of human rights everywhere, a new institution designed and empowered to address grand corruption would be a significant advantage. For that reason, I urge the Government of Canada to engage in advocacy and inter-regional activism towards the establishment of the IACC.

Fifth: Revitalize and restore the ancient right to seek asylum at a time when it is denied as never before

And now I come to the fifth and last subject on which Canada can act in defence of human rights worldwide. It is to revitalize and restore the ancient right to seek asylum. 

There is a record number of forcibly displaced persons in the world today—over 100 million. That number increases annually, driven by conflict and climate change, and the projected numbers are stark. The global response to those who have been forcibly displaced has been inadequate: uneven and under-funded. 

The World Refugee and Migration Council published its first report, A Call to Action, in 2019. It followed years of examining the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons throughout the world. We made dozens of recommendations intended to produce a more effective and humane response to forced displacement. Some have been adopted while many remain outstanding.

But fundamental to a humane and lawful response to displacement is the right to seek asylum. Its origins can be traced to Biblical times. In every epoch and in every part of the world, the duty to take in and provide safe haven for the persecuted has been seen as integral to our humanity. It was codified in the 1951 Refugee Convention. But that right—and the principles that support it– are under threat as never before. 

Instead of openness and humanity, we are witnessing a coarsening of language, a hardening of hearts, the closing of doors, the building of walls.

Both the UK and the US have adopted border policies openly hostile to asylum seekers. The UK proposes legislation (ignoring its international law obligations) that would see “illegal migrants” flown involuntarily to Rwanda! And the Americans are threatening a return to Trump-era policies that jail migrant families and make it virtually impossible to assert asylum claims at the US-Mexico border. 

Tens of thousands nonetheless make the arduous trek across vast territory to wait along the US southern border, desperate to escape violent conflict, criminal gangs and oppressive governments. In Europe, attitudes and policies have forced migrants to board flimsy boats and undertake risky journeys across the Mediterranean that many do not survive. And here in Canada, the Safe Third Country Agreement means  we out-source to the United States our international law obligation to grant asylum to those fleeing persecution. The United States may once have been a safe alternative for migrants seeking asylum: it is no longer. 

So what do I propose?

First, the Safe Third Agreement should be scrapped. Instead, we should build up our capacity to rapidly adjudicate asylum claims when they are made at our border and increase our consular and diplomatic presence in the Americas so we can receive and evaluate asylum claims when they are made there. 

Second, of the 500,000 persons per year that our government wishes to admit, we should commit that at least 20% of that number will be refugees. 

And third, Canada should convene and chair an effort to establish in our hemisphere sensible, humane and coordinated policies towards migration, policies that recognize the right to seek asylum while also maintaining the security of our borders. 

By addressing root causes to prevent forced displacement, by sharing responsibility to resettle refugees, by acknowledging our common humanity with those who are displaced and showing a generosity of spirit in responding to them, we can work towards greater respect for human rights in a world without walls.


As you can see, I am ambitious for Canada. But I have great confidence in our ability to bring about change. We have done it before. We led the effort to adopt the Land Mines Treaty. We were among the most active advocates for the International Criminal Court. We promoted the Human Security Agenda and made it an integral part of the Security Council’s work. And we campaigned successfully for the adoption by all UN member states of the Responsibility to Protect.

I have seen it for myself, in my own experience internationally. When Canada identifies a priority, marshals its diplomatic forces, galvanizes the support of the like-minded, conducts advocacy with the undecided, assembles a broad, inter-regional network of friends and then invests its energy, creativity, and political capital without reservation, we can truly change the world. 

Our commitment to human rights everywhere must be unflagging. And as those rights wither in an environment of autocracy, populism, racism, misogyny and violent conflict, our resolve to restore and strengthen them must be firm. For that reason, I urge our leaders to embrace the active and committed agenda I have set out. Canada’s leadership can make a difference. 

And the time to act is now.

Thank you.

Photo: Concordia University


  • Allan Rock

    Allan Rock is the president emeritus and was until 2022 a professor of law at the University of Ottawa. A former trial lawyer, he entered politics in 1993 and spent 10 years as a federal cabinet minister in the Justice, Health, Industry and Infrastructure portfolios. Allan was Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations between 2003 and 2006 and the president of the University of Ottawa from 2008 to 2016.