The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently took aim at the Quebec government’s Bill 78, arguing that it restricted the right of students to freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly. In a speech of five pages, Quebec is mentioned in two lines; this same speech touched on international human rights violations in countries like Syria, Mali, Nepal, Mexico, and Russia.
One must begin to seriously wonder whether the Commissioner has read Bill 78. Employees must report back to work (s. 10), but may still strike (s. 12). The bill prohibits the act of denying a student’s right to attend or access a university (ss. 13-14). Additionally, the organizers of demonstrations with more than fifty people must provide the date, time, venue, and location of the strike route; if the venue “poses serious risks for public security,” the police may require a change of venue (s. 16). The fines for blocking access to a university or participating in an illegal riot are between $1,000 and $5,000; this increases to up to $35,000 for student union leaders, or $125,000 for a student union.
No reasonable person can equate bill 78 with the conditions for strikers in countries like Syria or Russia. Quebec Premier Jean Charest, speaking to reporters in Rio de Janeiro, noted that protesters in Geneva, where the UN Human Rights Council is located, must give police 30 days’ notice. Yet the Human Rights Commissioner makes no mention of this policy. Additionally, including the Quebec bill in the same speech which discusses the murder and abuse of civilians in countries like Syria is a slap in the face for innocent civilians who struggle to survive under repressive regimes. This is a far cry from the protesting students in Quebec who are issued with a fine in the worst case scenario under the legislation.
The inappropriateness of the Commissioner’s comments also stem from the fact that the emergency legislation is not absolute. It can be challenged before the courts, as Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird pointed out. Indeed, the students have already taken this route, currently having two motions filed with the Quebec Superior Court. They argue, among other things, that their Charter rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of opinion and expression are being violated. The fact that this recourse exists and can be appealed to higher jurisdictions certainly undermines the Commissioner’s comments. Unlike certain other countries where there is no option to appeal to the courts, the Canadian judiciary is independent from the government. It can review legislation and find it unconstitutional.
The bill does not punish students criminally. Nothing goes on their record for being found guilty of an offense. It is a far cry from a human rights abuse, which is what the UNHCR should be spending its time analyzing.
The concept of human rights is crucial for a functioning global civil society. It is used to hold governments accountable and is the basis for a number of democratic revolutions worldwide. Yet when it is twisted and perverted for political purposes, it begins to lose its meaning. The federal government has come to the Quebec government’s aid and used the opportunity to further discredit the United Nations. The UNHCR must refrain from such conduct and should focus on true human rights violations in order to be taken seriously in the future. The childhood fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf comes to mind. If they do not do so, they risk diluting the meaning of human rights and eroding public faith in this crucial construct.