Canada and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

By Rhoda Howard-Hassmann, Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights, Wilfrid Laurier University

This blog post was contributed for Human Rights Day, observed on December 10.

December 10, 2014 is the 66th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

In his Why Canada Cares (McGill-Queen`s University Press, 2012, pp. 4-5), Andrew Lui shows that Canada`s initial response to the formulation of the UDHR was extremely negative.  Canada was worried the UDHR would give rights to Communists, Jehovah`s Witnesses, Japanese Canadians and Aboriginal Canadians. Canada also opposed economic and social rights. Indeed, Canada actually abstained on December 7, 1948 in a preliminary vote for the UDHR, along with the Soviet Bloc. It only voted for the actual Declaration on December 10 because its earlier abstention was so embarrassing.

Since 1948, Canada has shown a steadily increasing commitment to the principles enunciated in the UDHR, starting with the 1960 Bill of Rights and followed by the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  In legal terms, women have been fully equal to men for 30 years. The racialized criteria of our immigration program were removed in the 1960s

With regard to economic human rights, such as the rights to food, housing, health care and security enumerated in Article 25 of the UDHR, though, the situation is not as good. Although Canada is a welfare state with many poverty-alleviation programs, it does not rank as one of the most generous, especially compared with the Nordic states.  

Our biggest shame remains Aboriginal rights, where our founding as a settler colonial state still resonates.  Aboriginal Canadians have more rights than they did before 1948: for example, they can vote and organize themselves, but they endure extremely high rates of incarceration. Their employment rate is concomitantly low. They have far higher rates of malnutrition than other Canadians. Aboriginal women and girls are far more likely to go missing—or be murdered—than other women and girls.

And we still have to protect basic civil rights such as the right to a fair trial, easily over-ridden by our governments in emergencies such as the 1970 crisis in Quebec or the atmosphere of paranoia since 9/11.

In its foreign policies, Canada has shown a reasonably strong commitment to international human rights during the last 30 years. In Article 2, the UDHR prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race. In the 1980s, Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney helped lead international condemnation of apartheid, though not at the cost of Canada’s trade with South Africa.

Under the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, Canada was active in introducing the land mines treaty, in promoting the International Criminal Court, and in devising the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, among other measures.

Our current government under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper promotes LGBT rights worldwide. LGBT rights are a fairly recent addition to the human rights canon, unheard of when the UDHR was proclaimed in 1948.

Harper has also opened an office of religious freedom. Protected by Article 18 of the UDHR, freedom of religion is especially important now that IS in Iraq and Syria is “cleansing” entire regions of Christians, of groups such as the Yazidi whom it considers heretics, and even of  some Muslims through murder, rape, enslavement and expulsion.

Harper also promotes a maternal and child health initiative; maternal and child health is an important economic human right, first mentioned in the UDHR’s Article 25, 2, requiring “special care and assistance” in motherhood and childhood. However, Harper’s initiative excludes access to abortion, guaranteed by Canadian law but not guaranteed by any international human rights law.

Canada’s human rights record is far from perfect, both internally and internationally. Canadians must be eternally vigilant in protecting their rights.  And they must hold their governors to account to make sure our foreign policy always includes human rights. 


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