This year Human Rights Day is more than just a moment of reflection; it's an opportunity to 'do rights' differently.
Fifty years ago this month in 1966 the United Nations adopted what is known as the International Bill of Human Rights. Comprised of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as two key international covenants -- the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) -- these documents form the cornerstone of global human rights principles.
The two covenants, both binding, were treated as separate, leaving countries the option whether to endorse one, or both. This inadvertently created a system whereby some rights are more prominently recognized than others. Civil and political rights rose in public consciousness as people came to understand their right to vote, right to life, freedom of expression and freedom from torture. But economic and social rights were slowly pushed to the side with the right to housing, food, health, and work not receiving the same level of attention or respect.
Canada offers a prime example of this problem. Having signed both the covenants in 1976, many civil and political rights became enshrined in the Charter, but rights to an adequate standard of living are absent and have yet to be fully realized in this country.
To live in poverty is not only an issue of human rights in terms of food, housing and employment, but rather, even civil and political rights can feel out of reach.
Take for instance a recent vote in parliament where a majority of MPs voted down legislation in favour of an anti-poverty strategy grounded in human rights. It was a blatant and resounding "NO" to the idea of poverty being recognized as a violation of human rights and the fulfillment of Canada's international obligations with regards to food, housing, income and dignity.
Or consider these statistics:
- Almost five million people live in poverty in Canada
- The UN has called housing and homelessness in Canada 'a national emergency' Precarious employment in particular has increased by nearly 50 per cent in the last 20 years.
- One in 10 Canadians cannot afford to fill their medical prescriptions.
- 3.2 million people, including nearly one million children, experience food insecurity in Canada
When you drill down even further the numbers get more startling: in Nunavut, 60 per cent of children are living in food-insecure households while in Manitoba, 76 per cent of First Nations children on reserves live in poverty. Vulnerable populations, such as women, seniors, recent immigrants, indigenous populations and racialized individuals experience the effects of poverty disproportionately demonstrating that even within the realm of social inadequacy the playing field isn't level.
Rights, like people, are all equal. We cannot place one set of rights above another, nor should the leaders in our country.
To live in poverty is not only an issue of human rights in terms of food, housing and employment, but rather, even civil and political rights can feel out of reach. It was just last month that the government agreed to overturn restrictions related to voter vouching -- a process whereby an individual without ID could have someone vouch for them in order to vote. It was an issue of particular significance to people who are homeless or in poverty during the last election.
Canada's track record with the UN is also tainted. When it comes to economic and social rights treaty bodies continually tell our governments that they must fulfill their obligations and often point to the need for federal strategies to address housing and homelessness as well as poverty. While both strategies are at some stage of development at this point in time, it is unclear as to whether human rights will play a guiding role in this process.
Then there is the issue of access to justice and claiming rights. Canada has signed the Optional Protocol for the ICCPR but not the ICESCR, closing the door on rights claimants looking for help who turn to the international system after Canada's own judiciary and local laws have failed them.
But human rights are not something to consider every one to four years during an international review or on a special day. They are a constant in our lives and require progressive action, dedicated and adequate resources as well as strong leadership. Rights, like people, are all equal. We cannot place one set of rights above another, nor should the leaders in our country.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights says it best:
"Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible."
Our country is rich with a history of human rights leadership. The first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written by Canadian John Humphrey, a former Supreme Court Justice, Louise Arbour, was the High Commissioner of Human Rights at the United Nations, and currently three Special Rapporteurs who report to the UN Human Rights Council are based in Canada.
The commitments have been made, and the expertise is here but for rights to be 'real', they have to be fulfilled. And you can't go half-way.
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