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.

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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

CEDAW Committee declares asylum communication inadmissible (Y.C. v. Denmark)

In June 2011, Y.C., a Chinese national, sought asylum in Denmark. In support of her claim for asylum, she alleged that, if deported to China, she: faced a real, personal and foreseeable risk of further domestic violence by her former partner; and would not be able to exercise her religion freely.

In August 2011, the Danish Immigration Service rejected her asylum claim, which the Refugee Appeals Board later upheld on appeal. The Board accepted Y.C. was a victim of violence, but noted that she had not reported it or the removal of her child by her former partner to Chinese authorities. It also noted that Y.C.’s relationship with her former partner was a matter of private law and that conflict between them did not mean she would ‘necessarily risk persecution or outrages of a nature set out in section 7 (2) of the Aliens Act’. It considered it relevant that the former partner had not sought out Y.C. Additionally, it found that, although Y.C. ‘had to exercise he religion discretely, she could not be considered to be specifically and individually persecuted by the Chinese authorities on religious grounds’.

In January 2013, Y.C. submitted an individual communication to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. She alleged that deporting her to China would constitute a violation by Denmark of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, specifically articles 1 to 3 and 5, read in conjunction with General Recommendation No. 19. Y.C. claimed that:

  • Chinese authorities would not afford her adequate protection against the real, personal and foreseeable risk of domestic violence she faced, if returned to China by Denmark, or grant her access to, or custody of, her child
  • the State Party would, by deporting her, violate her freedom of religion.

Y.C. was awaiting deportation to China when she submitted her communication to the CEDAW Committee. She made a request for interim measures under article 5 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to stay the deportation pending the Committee’s consideration of the communication. The Committee declined her request and did not report any reasons for its decision.

State Party’s observations on admissibility

The State Party claimed that the communication was inadmissible as it was incompatible with CEDAW and manifestly ill-founded and unsubstantiated, pursuant to articles 4(2)(b) and 4(2)(c) of the Protocol, respectively. Among other things, it claimed that Y.C.:

  • sought to apply CEDAW in an extraterritorial manner
  • failed to sufficiently substantiate (for admissibility purposes) that she faced a real, personal and foreseeable risk of domestic violence, if deported
  • had not made explicit or sufficiently substantiated which CEDAW provisions would be violated, if she was deported
  • had not reported her situation to Chinese authorities or demonstrated that those authorities would not protect her adequately, if returned to China.

Committee’s decision on admissibility

The CEDAW Committee declared the communication inadmissible under article 4(2)(c) of the Optional Protocol, as both insufficiently substantiated and manifestly ill-founded. It declined to consider whether the communication was compatible with CEDAW, pursuant to article 4(2)(b) of the Protocol.

Y.C. failed to substantiate her claim sufficiently

The Committee determined that Y.C. had failed to substantiate, for the purposes of admissibility, her claim that Chinese authorities would not afford her adequate protection against violence or grant her access to, or custody of, her child. In doing so, it noted that Y.C. had not: reported her situation, including the alleged violence, to Chinese authorities; or provided an adequate explanation for her failure to seek to see, or obtain custody of, her child for several years.

Y.C.’s claim was manifestly ill-founded

In determining that the communication was manifestly ill-founded, the Committee noted that Y.C. had not provided sufficient information to support her claim of religious-based persecution and noted the State Party’s claim that Y.C. had alleged a violation of article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and not CEDAW. It further noted that Y.C. had not substantiated that she was a victim of gender-based discrimination, as part of her claim that she would not be able to exercise her religious beliefs freely in China.

Communication No. 59/2013, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/59/D/59/2013 (2014)

Decision

CEDAW Committee declares domestic violence asylum communication inadmissible (S.O. v. Canada)

S.O. claimed she was subjected to domestic violence in Mexico in 2008-2009 and that police took no action to protect her each time she reported the violence. She later left Mexico, when her lawyer told her she could not obtain protection in Mexico. After S.O. left, her abusive partner contacted her family and friends to find out where S.O. was and assaulted her mother when she refused to disclose S.O.’s whereabouts.

In 2011, S.O. applied for refugee protection in Canada on the grounds that she would face a real, personal and foreseeable risk of serious forms of gender-based violence, if returned to Mexico. Canada undertook a pre-removal risk assessment, a procedure used when an applicant has applied for refugee protection previously.

In December 2012, Canada rejected S.O.’s application. It did not dispute that S.O. was a victim of domestic violence and had sought protection from Mexican authorities. However, it concluded that she had a reasonable internal flight alternative within Mexico and had failed to show that she was unable to live apart from her abusive former partner in another part of the country.

In January 2013, S.O. applied to the Federal Court for leave to seek judicial review of the decision, claiming that an internal flight alternative was not an aspect of state protection. She also filed a motion to stay her removal, while the judicial review was pending. In February 2013, the Federal Court dismissed the motion to stay the removal, concluding that the finding of an internal flight alternative was within the spectrum of possible conclusions, in light of the facts and law in the case. In June 2013, the Court dismissed the application for leave to seek judicial review without reasons.

In February 2013, S.O. submitted an individual communication to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee). She claimed that her deportation to Mexico would constitute a violation by Canada of articles 1 to 3 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), read in conjunction with the Committee’s General Recommendation No. 19. Among other things, S.O. claimed that: she would be subjected to domestic violence, if deported; Mexican authorities had previously failed to protect her against such violence; and her claim for protection was denied based on the erroneous assessment that protection for gender-based violence victims is available if she relocated to another part of Mexico.

In March 2013, the Committee granted S.O’s request for interim measures and requested the State Party not to deport her while the case was pending.

State Party’s observations on admissibility

The State Party contested the admissibility of the communication of three grounds.

Firstly, it claimed that S.O. had failed to exhaust all available domestic remedies, as required by article 4(1) of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Specifically, it noted that S.O. had failed to apply for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Secondly, it claimed that CEDAW does not contain an obligation of non-refoulement and disputed the Committee’s interpretation of CEDAW in M.N.N. v. Denmark to the effect that this obligation can be included in the treaty. It therefore submitted that S.O.’s claim that Canada has an obligation of non-refoulement is incompatible with CEDAW, pursuant to article 4(2)(b) of the Protocol.

Thirdly, it claimed that the communication was manifestly ill-founded or S.O. had not sufficiently substantiated her claim that she would face risk of torture or risk to life, if returned to Mexico.

Committee’s decision on admissibility

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

Sufficiently substantiate claim

The Committee determined that S.O. had failed to sufficiently substantiate her claim that her removal from Canada to Mexico would expose her to a real, personal and foreseeable risk of serious forms of gender-based violence and therefore violate articles 1 to 2 of CEDAW, read with General Recommendation No. 19. It explained that S.O. had not provided sufficient information to show, for the purposes of admissibility:

  • that she would face a real, personal and foreseeable risk of serious forms of gender-based violence, if deported to Mexico
  • why she could not relocate within Mexico, if she had to leave her home city to avoid further violence by her former partner
  • what remedies she pursued in Mexico after unsuccessfully filing complaints with the police.

The Committee further determined that S.O. had not explained why and how she considers the State Party violated her rights under article 3 of CEDAW.

Although finding the communication inadmissible, the Committee also made comments in respect of two other inadmissibility grounds.

S.O. had exhausted domestic remedies

The Committee concluded that S.O. had exhausted all available domestic remedies when she sought a stay of deportation and judicial review of the negative pre-removal risk assessment before the Federal Court. While noting the possibility of applying for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, the Committee concluded that it was not necessary to do so to satisfy the exhaustion requirement, as doing so would not halt S.O.’s deportation.

The complaint was compatible with, and covered by, CEDAW

The Committee rejected the State Party’s argument that CEDAW does not contain an obligation of non-refoulement. It stressed that, under article 2(d), States Parties must refrain from discriminating against women and ensure public authorities and institutions act accordingly. Recalling it jurisprudence, it further stressed that article 2(d) requires States Parties to protect women against a real, personal and foreseeable risk of serious forms of gender-based violence, irrespective of whether it would occur outside territorial boundaries. Additionally, the Committee recalled that gender-based violence is a form of discrimination against women. However, it affirmed that what amounts to serious forms of gender-based violence triggering the protection afforded under article 2(d) depends on the circumstances of each case and needs to be determined by it on a case-by-case basis at the merits stage.

Communication No. 49/2013, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/59/D/49/2013 (2014)

Decision