Occupy evictions spur legal complaint to UN

A group of Ontario lawyers has filed a complaint at the United Nations over the move by various Canadian cities to evict Occupy protesters.

In its submission to the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Law Union of Ontario says the evictions are an affront to the rights to freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly.

"We think it's a worthwhile thing to do," said Howard Morton, a Toronto criminal lawyer and a member of the Law Union of Ontario.

"We find that it does offend the conventions on human rights – we are a signatory to those and we should be seeking judgment with respect to contraventions of them."

The law union said in a statement Friday that the "actions of government officials and police in seeking to remove Occupy movement protests from Canadian municipalities indicate a widespread disregard for fundamental freedoms."

"In these municipalities, government officials seek to elevate the need to enforce municipal bylaws related to park use and maintenance above fundamental civil and political rights…. Municipal bylaw enforcement does not constitute legitimate justification for violations of the rights to freedom of expression, opinion, peaceful assembly and association in international human rights law."

The first Canadian city to crack down on Occupy protesters was London, Ont., where police swept in and ripped down tents after midnight on Nov. 9.

Police in Halifax tore down the Occupy encampment there two days later, arresting 14 people, while demonstrations in Regina and Saskatoon were forced to shut down in the following days.

Since then, authorities in Vancouver and Victoria have obtained eviction orders in court, while an Ontario court is to rule on Monday over Toronto's bid to remove its downtown Occupy encampment. Calgary has also handed out eviction notices to demonstrators there.

Morton said he hoped the UN would decide to pursue the matter.

"They can't offer any sanctions, but they can certainly, if there was will to do so, condemn the act as being a breach of the conventions with respect to human rights," Morton said.

'Reasonable limits' on charter rights

Legal experts say the Occupy protesters have some constitutional protections under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of expression, assembly and association. Municipal bylaws that prohibit erecting tents and camping overnight, while not expressly intended to curtail protests, effectively ban Occupy demonstrations and therefore trigger constitutional scrutiny, said University of Toronto law professor David Schneiderman.

On the other hand, Section 1 of the Charter guarantees those rights "subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society." Schneiderman said that places the burden on individual cities to justify the eviction measures they're taking to a court, which would determine if it's "proportionate or is this overkill? Are there other alternatives?"

The Law Union of Ontario's statement makes it clear how the group — which describes itself as a "coalition of progressive lawyers, law students and legal workers" — feels on those issues.

"Some inconvenience to local park users is a small price to pay for the larger price being paid by the 99 per cent worldwide in the face of an economic system that privileges the few over the many, with disastrous environmental and social impacts," the group's statement says.

Occupy protesters also have legal rights stemming from the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but those are less directly enforceable in Canadian courts.

The law union filed its complaint with two independent experts called "special rapporteurs" who are appointed by the UN's Human Rights Council and work with the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The rapporteurs have the power to investigate and to report back to the UN General Assembly.

Not all Canadian cities have been antagonistic toward Occupy protesters. Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg have made no moves to evict demonstrators, with Montreal's civic officials in particular saying they want to have good relations.