Marking Human Rights Day With Difficult Questions
On December 10th 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a short document, just eight pages if you download it from the United Nations website. As we mark its 70th anniversary, the declaration is striking for its ambition. It set high goals and many of its 30 articles have not yet been realized, including in the western and developed nations that we comfortably think of as leading the world. Even Canadian society fails to reach some of the lofty but simple goals set out in the declaration.
If you are not familiar with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, take a few minutes to read it today. The rights it spells out are basic and broad, beginning with the assertion that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
The articles speak to the importance of freedom, education, scientific advancement, cultural expression, equal work for equal pay, fair justice systems, and government by the people. They protect against torture, cruelty, discrimination, arbitrary confinement, slavery, and exploitation. In many ways the articles describe an ideal world and reflecting on the declaration seven decades later, our real world fails to measure up.
There are generations of Canadians alive today who still do not experience what the declaration refers to as the most basic of human rights. Generations of indigenous Canadians were denied the right laid out in Article 16 which says “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”. Canadian women are often denied the rights promised in Article 23 which says that “everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work” as StatsCan reports that women earn on average 87 cents to every dollar earned by men. Contemporary victims and survivors of human trafficking are denied the right articulated in Article 4 saying that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude”.
Viewed through the lens of historic and ongoing injustice, the global community has clearly failed to meet the goals laid out in the declaration. We could blame the document but declarations like this are not responsible for changing the world. We, as people and communities, are the ones who need to do the work.
Seventy years after the document was signed, we have not met its goals but we have made some progress. At the very least, more people are aware of the problems it names and our laws more fully protect the rights it declared in the somber shadow of World War Two. Reflecting on the unmet goals, you might be tempted to consider it a failure or an unrealistic and idealistic wish list. That would be a pessimistic and convenient excuse to avoid the work it calls us to do. The fact that we have not lived up entirely to this universal declaration of rights for all humanity is a measure of the considerable work left to be done. The world imagined by the declaration is possible and we will only have failed its vision if we stop advocating for and advancing toward that world. It is not and will not be easy work. Like any renovation, we need to start by demolishing the structures in our beliefs, nations, and economies that are preventing us from sharing equally in universal human rights. Complacency and fear will not help us to realize the declaration’s vision. Only commitment, compassion, organization, and hard work will help us to create a world where every human being enjoys the basic rights enshrined 70 years ago.
There are many individuals, organizations, and agencies actively pursuing this work locally. Violence Prevention Grey Bruce is one of them. The Bruce Grey Poverty Task Force is another and there are many more. As we conclude the 16 days of activism article series we challenge all of our neighbours, friends, and family to find ways — large and small — that you can contribute to the advancement of human rights. Reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be one small step. Supporting local advocates is another. After that, share your thoughts and discoveries. Advertise your initiatives. This is work that we have to do together.
By Jon Farmer
Violence Prevention Grey Bruce