Human Rights Day: The Canadian connection

Rebekah's picture

Tomorrow, December 10, is Human Rights Day, when we commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by United Nations General Assembly in 1948. This year marks the 61st anniversary.

Signed by most states, the UDHR is an important benchmark in the development of international human rights standards. The 30 articles outline the basic principles, rights, dignities and freedoms to which every person is entitled. Some of these include the right to fair and equal treatment under the law, freedom of expression and thought, and the right to an adequate standard of living.

The UDHR was drafted and adopted during the early years of UN. The principle drafter was a Canadian, John Peters Humphrey, a professor of law at McGill University, originally from Hampton, New Brunswick. In 1946 Humphrey was recruited by the UN and in 1947 he was appointed to lead the UN Commission on Human Rights in drafting the declaration, which was adopted the next year.

Today, John Peters Humphrey continues to be celebrated in Canada. His role with the UDHR was and continues to be the inspiration behind many human rights initiatives within Canada, including the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights.

However, the current state of human rights around the world is not even close to standards set in 1948. As organizations such as Amnesty International report, there are allegations of human rights violations at varying degrees in most countries around the world, including Canada.

Human rights are often defined in terms of political and civil rights. Compared to the rest of the world, Canadians enjoy much freedom and security in these areas. But the UDHR also extends the concept of human rights to include social and economic rights. Article 25 declares that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes food and housing security as well as access to necessary social services.

Currently at least one in ten Canadians lives in poverty. Child poverty, which 20 years ago parliamentarians vowed to eliminate, remains unchanged. The numbers are even higher within Aboriginal communities and Canada continues to refuse to sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, despite global pressure.

Food bank usage in Canada remains at about 800,000 served on a monthly basis. Canada is also the only country in the G8 without a national housing strategy, to provide affordable housing with costs reasonably proportional to wages. Several social services such as employment insurance often do not meet basic needs.

All of this is not to discourage Canadians in our commemoration of Human Rights Day. But it is a chance to recognize that there are shortcomings within our own borders. Our best way of celebrating is to mobilize civil society and governments to continue working for the promotion of international human rights standards in Canada. Let’s keep John Peters Humphrey’s vision alive!

Rebekah Sears is CPJ’s former policy intern.

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