UN calls Quebec's Bill 78 alarming

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is criticizing Quebec's Bill 78, a new law that imposes strict limits on student protests.

Navi Pillay spoke out about the special law in her opening address at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday morning.

In a speech of five single-spaced pages, Quebec was mentioned in two lines:

"Moves to restrict freedom of assembly in many parts of the world are alarming," Pillay said.

"In the context of student protests, I am disappointed by the new legislation passed in Quebec that restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly.

In the speech, Pillay also touched on many human rights hotspots around the world including Syria, Mali, Nepal, Mexico and Russia.

A UN watchdog group called UN watch issued a statement calling the reference to Quebec absurd.

It pointed out that Bill 78 was passed by a democratically elected government and that opponents have the opportunity to challenge it in court.

Student federations in Quebec have filed a legal motion to temporarily suspend the special law until July, when a court is expected to hear the groups' second legal challenge seeking to declare the law invalid.

Executive director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, told the CBC he understands that there are issues about Bill 78 but said it shouldn't be a matter of urgent United Nations attention.

"Let's keep some perspective," he said. "In Syria, there are people who demonstrate and get slaughtered. In Canada, legislation says you have to give police notice of the route you're taking."

The group also said there are far more restrictive countries that Pillay failed to mention, including Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China.

Bill 78, which was passed into law on May 18, was the Quebec government's legal response to a student crisis sparked three months ago over planned tuition increases.

It suspended the winter semester for striking students and restricted protests, guiding their location, timing, and organization.

Authorities had to be given a precise itinerary and eight hours' notice for any protest involving 50 people or more, at the risk of heavy fines running into the thousands of dollars.