CEDAW inquiry into grave violence against Aboriginal women in Canada

This post, authored by Meghan Campbell, was first published on the Oxford Human Rights Hub on 25 March 2015 and is republished here with the permission of the author. 

On March 6, 2015 the CEDAW Committee released its second inquiry into grave and systemic violations of CEDAW under the Article 8 of the OP-CEDAW. This inquiry was initiated by the Feminist Alliance for International Action and the Native Women’s Association of Canada. These two organisations alleged grave and systematic violations of CEDAW in relation to the disproportionately high levels of violence experienced by Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. Particularly, they argued Canada was in breach of CEDAW because (i) there was no co-ordinated national action plan to address the root causes of violence; (ii) the failures of law enforcement to protect and prevent violence against Aboriginal women and (iii) there was no national public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

The CEDAW inquiry found a firm factual basis for these allegations. Between 1960 and 2013, 663 Aboriginal women have gone missing or being murdered (para 4). In the period 2000-2008 the murders of Aboriginal women represent 10 per cent of the total number of female homicides, despite the fact that Aboriginal women make up only 3 per cent of the total female population (para 7). Aboriginal women are 3.5 times more likely to experience domestic violence and sexual assault than non-Aboriginal women and 5 times more likely to die of violence (para 3).

Canada did not deny the factual claims but argued that its response to violence against women was sufficient to discharge its obligations under CEDAW. The government provided extensive evidence of the funding, programmes and government studies undertaken to prevent further violence against Aboriginal women (para 32-81).

The main focus of the inquiry was the appropriateness of the Canada’s response. After a country visit, the inquiry concluded that Canada’s efforts to address violence against Aboriginal women and girls were inadequate in light of the gravity of the situation. To meet the due diligence standard under Article 2 of CEDAW the formal framework established by Canada must be in practice be effective and available.

The report provides numerous examples of where Canada has failed Aboriginal women and this post highlights a just a few of the findings from the inquiry. First, the Committee concluded that the federal and provincial studies on violence against Aboriginal often had a limited mandate; the recommendations were at times general or ignored and never implemented (para 100-104). Second, the high incidence of poverty, inadequate housing, lack of education and employment opportunities increases Aboriginal women’s vulnerability to violence (para 112). Although Canada has taken step, the measures ‘have not gone far enough’ (para 117). For example, when asked for information on anti-poverty programmes, Canada it did not provide any specific reference to the needs of Aboriginal women and girls (para 118-19). Third, Aboriginal women are reluctant to report violence to the police ‘mainly due to police behaviour and bias’ (para 138). Stereotypical attitudes of Aboriginal women as prostitutes or runaways engaging in high-risk lifestyles often negatively impacted the quality of the police investigation. (para 136-37, 205). While Canada has taken steps to provide gender sensitivity training for police and has developed protocols on investigating cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, these are of limited efficiency due to their non-binding nature and lack of oversight and enforcement mechanisms (para 144).

The inquiry also made important contributions to the development of CEDAW. It re-emphasises the importance of substantive equality by holding that it is not sufficient for Canada to apply the same standards to Aboriginal women as have been applied to others. Aboriginal women are particularly vulnerable and Canada’s response needs to account for their disadvantaged position in society. The Committee also highlighted the importance of addressing poverty in protecting Aboriginal women from violence. While there are no substantive obligations in CEDAW on poverty, the Committee is employing a rich interpreting of the treaty to address an underlying cause of violence against Aboriginal women. The inquiry noted that achieving equality before the law (Article 15) is ‘necessarily related to positive obligations…to fulfil economic and social rights enshrined in CEDAW’ (para 199). At the same time, the full development and advancement of women (Article 3) requires Canada to take positive measures to ensure access to education, housing, transportation and support to families and children.

The inquiry offers a series of recommendations to combat violence, improve socio-economic conditions and eliminate discrimination against Aboriginal women and called for a national public inquiry and plan of action. Canada accepted 34 of the 38 recommendations, but unfortunately it still resists holding a national inquiry and plan of action. Notwithstanding this, the CEDAW inquiry is an important contribution to understanding intersectional discrimination and gender inequality. Hopefully it can form the basis for continued dialogue between government officials and the Aboriginal community so as to end violence against Aboriginal women and girls.

Committee declares asylum communication inadmissible, clarifies extraterritorial effect of CEDAW (Y.W. v. Denmark)

In 2010, Y.W., a Chinese national, sought asylum in Denmark. Y.W. claimed that, if deported to China, she would be killed or subjected to violence by organised criminals, who, as a result of a large gambling debt her former husband raised in her name, had previously threatened and raped her, burned her with hot oil and forced her to work as a prostitute. Y.W. further claimed that Chinese authorities would not protect her effectively because they do not acknowledge gender-based violence against women.

In May 2010, the Danish Immigration Service rejected Y.W.’s asylum claim as manifestly unfounded. It concluded that the acts against her were criminal offences irrelevant to asylum law and she could seek protection from the Chinese authorities.

In January 2013, Y.W. submitted an individual communication to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. She claimed that her deportation to China would constitute a violation by Denmark of articles 1 to 3, 12 and 15 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, read in conjunction with the Committee’s General Recommendation No. 19. Among other things, Y.W. submitted that:

  • she had been discriminated against as a woman in seeking to access to justice because more females than males are denied asylum in Denmark under the “manifestly unfounded” procedure and deported, without the right to appeal
  • she would be subjected to gender-based violence by organised crime elements, if deported to China, and that Chinese authorities would not protect her effectively
  • the State Party, by rejecting her asylum claim, failed to protect her against discrimination against women and violence that would put her life and health at risk
  • while in prison, the State Party failed to provide her treatment for the trauma she suffered as a result of the violence
  • the State Party failed to provide her effective remedies for the violations she experienced.

State Party’s observations on admissibility

The State Party submitted that the Committee should declare the communication inadmissible, as Y.W. had failed to:

The State Party further submitted that the communication should be declared inadmissible ratione loci and ratione materiae, as Denmark’s obligations under CEDAW apply only to people under its jurisdiction and do not extend to violations that another State Party is expected to commit (ie CEDAW lacks extraterritorial effect). It further claimed that, unlike other human rights treaties, CEDAW does not deal with removal to torture or other serious threats to life and the security of a person.

Committee’s decision on admissibility

The CEDAW Committee determined that Y.W. had failed to substantiate her claim sufficiently and declared the communication inadmissible under article 4(2)(c) of the Optional Protocol.

Gender-based violence / non-refoulement

The Committee recalled its General Recommendation No. 28 in which it noted that CEDAW applies both to citizens and non-citizens, including asylum seekers, within a State Party’s territory or control. It also recalled its General Recommendation No. 19, in which it noted that gender-based violence is a form of discrimination against women and violates other human rights, including the right to life and the freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It also re-affirmed that, under international human rights law, States Parties must refrain from returning people to a jurisdiction in which he or she may face serious rights violations, including arbitrary deprivation of life or torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or gender or other forms of persecution.

The Committee rejected the State Party’s claim that CEDAW does not have extraterritorial effect and recalled that article 2(d) imposes an obligation to refrain from discriminating against women and to ensure public authorities and institutions act accordingly. This positive duty, the Committee explained,

encompasses the obligation … to protect women from being exposed to a real, personal and foreseeable risk of serious forms of gender-based violence, irrespective of whether such consequences would take place outside the territorial boundaries of the sending State party: if a State party takes a decision relating to a person within its jurisdiction, and the necessary and foreseeable consequence is that that person’s rights under the Convention will be violated in another jurisdiction, the State party itself may be in violation of the Convention.

The Committee further explained that ‘[t]he foreseeability of the consequence would mean that there was a present violation by the State party, even though the consequence would not occur until later’. It clarified that

[w]hat amounts to serious forms of gender-based violence will depend on the circumstances of each case and would need to be determined by the Committee on a case-by-case basis at the merits stage, provided that the author had made a prima facie case before the Committee by sufficiently substantiating such allegations.

Ultimately, however, the Committee concluded that Y.W. had not sufficiently substantiated her claim that she would be subjected to gender-based violence, if deported to China, and would not receive adequate protection from Chinese authorities. It also emphasised that Y.W. had never sought protection from Chinese authorities.

Access to justice in relation to asylum claim

The Committee recalled its General Recommendation No. 32, in which it affirmed that articles 1-3, 5(a) and 15 of CEDAW require States Parties to ensure women are not discriminated against during any aspect of the asylum process. It further recalled that States Parties should apply a gender-sensitive approach at every stage of the asylum process and ensure women denied asylum are subjected to dignified and non-discriminatory return processes.

Ultimately, however, the Committee concluded that Y.W. had not sufficiently substantiated her claim that she had been discriminated against in seeking access to justice. In this connection, it noted that Y.W. had not informed it of her whereabouts and whether or not she had been deported to China. It further noted the absence of any other pertinent information on file.

Communication No. 51/2013, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/60/D/51/2013 (2015)

Decision