Is the UN Declaration for Human Rights a Little Passé?

By Pauline Théoret
June 13, 2014

As a global citizenry, we’ve been through two World Wars, a number of genocides, civil wars, riots, freedom marches, demonstrations, uprisings, coups, and countless other events, all of which have served to reinforce the accessibility of human rights for every human being on this planet. Surely, since the introduction of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), some of the 30 Rights outlined in that Declaration in 1948 are now moot. Surely, we’ve grown smarter, kinder, and wiser. Surely, we’ve come to recognize that our individual value is no more and no less than that of any other person. Right?

We may be born free and equal, until our first breath of life takes root in our soul. Thereafter we are a product of our environment and its impact on us. If you’re Sudanese-born and internally displaced, you have limited access to resources, comfort, health services and protection. If you’re born on a First Nations reserve in Canada, equality takes on a whole new meaning in terms of access to education and schools as well as necessary supporting services to meet the individual needs of every student. How can it be possible that hundreds of young Nigerian school girls are held in slavery or servitude in 2014? An even more distressing thought is the length of time it took for countries to come forward to help rescue these ‘equal’ persons. The Polaris Project states there are ‘more individuals in slavery today than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade’ during the 16th to 19th centuries. Furthermore, I don’t need to tell you that most of those trafficking victims are women; you know that.

We’re all entitled to the rights and freedoms in the UNDHR irrelevant of sex, race, language, … birth or other status, but perhaps we should ask the citizens of Syria, Belarus, and even Russia, ruled under Bashar al-Assad, Alexander Lukashenko, and Vladimir Putin, respectively, if they have ongoing access to their rights. In Canada, the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society filed a formal complaint in 2007 with the Canadian Human Rights Commission to determine “if Canada's provision of First Nations child and family services is flawed, inequitable and therefore discriminatory toward First Nations children and families.” Our federal government spent over three million dollars attempting to squash the complaint but was unsuccessful. The case is now under hearings with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. Does Canada have its own shameful situations?

According to Education International, 2,057 teachers and union activists across the world were arbitrarily detained, arrested or punished because their demands for fair wages, fair working conditions, security and safety were resisted or dismissed by governments. Between 1991 and 2006, 808 educators were assassinated, 2,015 received death threats, 21 were tortured, 59 ‘disappeared,’ 1,008 were forced to leave their homes and jobs for fear of violence, and 161 were arbitrarily detained. It confounds one to see how even today, Article 23 of the Declaration dealing with the right to work under just and favourable conditions with fair remuneration, and the right to join organized movements to help attain those universally-adopted goals, can ignite fear which can lead one to concede on the pursuit of these freedoms.

As far as progressive countries go, we’re not immune to imposing inhuman or degrading treatment upon military prisoners; think back to the 1993 embarrassment in Somalia. If we take another look in our own neighbourhoods, we see the tragic outcomes of cyberbullying which continue to perpetuate degrading treatment upon its young victims—students in our classrooms. The outcomes of bullying, in any form, based on societal and self-righteous values-driven discrimination can lead one to wonder to what extent this is linked to increases in suicide, mental health issues such as anxiety and body-dismorphic disorders, addictions, low self-esteem and poor educational outcomes.

If we’re looking in our own backyards, we still see the weeds of racism, sexism, and a large number of other ‘isms’ that we can perhaps even be guilty of ourselves in moments of weakness. Perhaps our federal government is experiencing such weak moments in its attempts to pass the Fair Elections Act, which blatantly discriminates on the fundamental democratic right to vote against all of those who don’t have a driver’s license, which is by far, the most common piece of ID that has a photo, your address, and your date of birth: seniors who no longer drive, post-secondary students who don’t have a local driver’s license, and remote First Nations individuals who don’t possess a driver’s license. Passports, which are the official border document from country to country don’t even include the official address; it’s something we fill out ourselves!

So, are human rights a little passé? Are they something we no longer need like the measles’ vaccine? Well, if you’re a news listener or viewer, measles are creeping back into society because people are not accessing available vaccines. So if we’re not accessing our rights, we will continue to experience chaos, unrest, unfairness, inequity, discrimination, but most importantly, a strong sense of disconnect with our brothers and sisters of the world. Solidarity begets human rights. Let’s get out of our backyards and join each other in the rebirth of human rights.

Imaginaction: Canadian Defenders for Human Rights

Pauline Théoret is a program officer of CTF’s International and Social Justice Program. She is currently on leave.

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