Human rights in the 21st century

by Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay

Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay is chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The following is taken from remarks given at the First Nations House of Learning recently.

Today, 50 years after its passage in 1948, the Universal Declara tion of Human Rights remains an eloquent and far-reaching document -- a vision of the world as we would like it to be. But all the declarations, resolutions, and laws the world has to offer are worthless unless they are backed up by people resolved to maintain them.

There is no question that there has been significant progress since the declaration's adoption. We have to remember that in 1948, most of the world's citizens lived under either dictatorships or colonial rule. The fight for democracy over the last five decades has meant that a growing number of countries are actually concerned about ensuring that the rights of their people are protected.

But we have only to read the daily headlines to realize that human rights violations are still commonplace in many parts of the globe.

Here in Canada, a leader in human rights both domestically and internationally, we are far from these horrors. But we still have a way to go before the declaration's vision is a reality for all Canadians.

Much of the overt discrimination of the past is gone. We no longer see advertisements stipulating that only men may apply for certain jobs, or that Roman Catholics and Jews may seek employment elsewhere.

Still, many of the human rights we now take for granted have been in place for one generation or less. And although we have what many think is an enviable situation here in Canada, nothing can be taken for granted.

There are several global shifts that call for our attention:

* increased globalization;

* increased reliance on technology;

* more diverse populations; and

* changing workplaces, and shifts to home-based work.

None of these are necessarily threats to human rights, but consequences arising from them may lead to human rights concerns.

The framers of the Universal Declaration clearly intended that human rights be taken into account when addressing economic issues. Are we prepared to take up the torch from them, or have we already decided that the gospel of economic efficiency will dictate how we run our society?

We already worry publicly, as we should, about the economic legacy that we will leave future generations. We need also to worry about, debate, and work toward a strong human rights legacy for the next century and beyond.

If we do not, I would venture to suggest that, as economic globalization continues, as national boundaries become less significant, as governments continue to shrink in size, and as multinational corporations continue to increase their power and influence, that the gains we have made through our human rights work will come under fire.

What happens, for instance, if a company does not like the human rights regulations in its home country? It is now easier than ever before for it to move its operations abroad, where governments less solicitous of the rights of their people turn a blind eye to factories that run on slave or child labor.

It is time for us to take a leaf from the pages of the United Nations' International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and concentrate on what used to be third-world issues right here at home.

Twenty years ago, for instance, higher education was so inexpensive that few Canadians were denied access to it. But now many people who would like to improve their lot report that they are unable to assume the debt load needed to continue their studies. We risk living in a country with two classes of citizens: those who have access to higher education, and the knowledge, power and influence that come with it, and those who do not.

Without that access comes poverty. Although I have been criticized for raising poverty as a human rights issue, I continue to believe it is a major barrier to the realization of human rights. I fear that we are watching the birth of a society right here in Canada in which we will no longer be able to cushion the negative fallout from economic shifts, let alone help set individuals and families on a more equal footing and ensure equality of opportunity for all.

From the very beginning, human rights commissions have been a way for society as a whole to say to victims of discrimination -- the least advantaged, the disenfranchised and the dispossessed -- that we stand with you, that we think that your problems are really our problems too, because discrimination, intolerance and hatred wound the community's bond of solidarity, a basic denial of belonging.

With this in mind, now is the time to ask where we, as a society, are heading. And what must we do, now and in the future, to make sure our human rights principles do not get lost along the way?

In order to answer these questions, we need to build consensus on the society we want to live in, with a balance of freedom and responsibilities that lets everyone find a place. In particular, we need to recognize that those of us still struggling for fair treatment may need the rest of us to accept changes that will make our communities work for everyone.

In that spirit, let us resolve that our legacy to future generations will be a Canada that honours the dignity and worth of every human being.