Monday, December 10th marks the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Significantly, this took place just three years after the Allies had defeated Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and other regimes which had violated human rights on a colossal scale.
How does Canada's human rights record stand up to the declaration?
How does Canada, as one of the 48 nations to sign this famous Declaration, measure up today? On the positive side, we don’t condone slavery or slave trading (Article 4) or arbitrary arrests, detention or exile (Article 9). We provide the criminally accused with a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal (Article 10) and presume they are innocent until proven guilty (Article 11). We have freedom of movement, including the right to leave Canada and return (Article 13). The right to own property, alone as well as in association with others (Article 17), is generally respected, even if not protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canadians have the right to form and to join trade unions (Article 23), and to vote in “periodic and genuine elections” by universal and equal suffrage, by secret ballot (Article 21).
Freedom of thought and expression need improvement
However, there is ample room for improvement. The right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the right to manifest this in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (Article 18) suffered a serious set-back this past June, when the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the violation of Trinity Western University’s religious freedom. The court did so in the name of an undefined “public interest” and facile political slogans like “diversity,” also undefined by the court. The full repercussions of this atrocious decision won’t be known for many years. Compared to most countries, Canada does an adequate job of protecting freedom of opinion and expression (Article 19). However, free speech at public universities is subject to “mob censorship” by people who physically obstruct displays, silence speakers and shut down events that they disagree with. These practices are willfully condoned by university presidents, and in some cases even encouraged by university administrations. Campus clubs which seek to challenge “sacred cows” like radical feminism and abortion rights are banned from campus by student unions. Off-campus, human rights commissions stand ready to prosecute citizens for expressing the wrong ideas. Parliament’s condemnation of “Islamophobia” does not clarify whether criticism of Islam or its founding prophet should remain legal. The inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in human rights legislation means potential penalties (fines, or imprisonment for refusing to pay them) for those who refuse to use preferred pronouns, and those who otherwise reject post-modernist transgender theory.
Other areas where Canada is lacking
Canada’s frequent use of solitary confinement in prisons arguably qualifies as torture, or as a cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 5). When it comes to recognizing the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society, entitled to protection by society and the State” (Article 16), some provincial education policies and child welfare practices fall short of this mark. The prior right of parents “to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (Article 26) has been seriously eroded by an aggressive “one-size-fits-all” approach to education, which undermines the existence of real choice for most parents. That “no one may be compelled to belong to an association” (Article 20) is shamelessly repudiated by Canadian labour laws, which force millions of Canadians to pay union dues as a condition of employment. The right to work without belonging to a union does not exist in Canada, in stark contrast to almost every other country in the world.
Declaration is vague on the definition of "right to life"
How well Canada is complying with “the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Article 3) depends in part on whether one objects to the absence, in Canada, of any legal restrictions on abortion, at any time during the nine months of pregnancy. Pro-choicers would celebrate this as part of “liberty and security of the person.” Pro-lifers decry the violation of the “right to life” and the notion that, in Canada, human rights begin only at birth, and not a day before. The Declaration itself is silent on this question. Canada does better than most countries, in living up to its signature on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But that's no reason we can't improve our performance.