Neve: On Human Rights Day, a wish list for a better world

There is much progress to celebrate, but so much more we must do.

Publishing date:

Dec 10, 2022  •  9 hours ago  •  3 minute read

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Huseyin Celil, a Uyghur Canadian, has been detained for more than 16 years in China.
Huseyin Celil, a Uyghur Canadian, has been detained for more than 16 years in China. POSTMEDIA/FILE PHOTO

Today, International Human Rights Day, marks 74 years since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A day for reflection. But more crucially, a day for strengthened commitment to the Declaration’s purpose.

At the time, it had only been three years since the end of the Second World War and the world was grappling with the horrors of the Holocaust. The Universal Declaration’s powerful opening recognition that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” was unquestionably timely. Those stirring words remain, however, a promise that has been shattered far too readily over the decades since.

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Human Rights Day always invites questions about how far we have come since the Universal Declaration was adopted. Are rights better protected or more disregarded this year compared to last?

Those are crucial questions. They are also hard to answer, as neither the flourish nor the disappointment of human rights easily lend themselves to precise measurement.

There are, however, imperatives very much in need of our attention today.

First, let us celebrate the imagination and courage of human rights defenders everywhere. I am holding up the tenacity and conviction of the people of Iran, particularly the country’s young women and girls, who are unrelenting in their demand for equality and human rights reform. They have shown that they will not be deterred by the cruel might of Iran’s feared security apparatus.

I am also grateful for Indigenous rights advocates across Canada who push on with struggles for equality for First Nations Children, for an end to violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, and for Indigenous land rights in this country to be truly respected. Those are struggles that all Canadians must share.

Second, today we cannot help but mourn. For this has been a grim year of horrendous human rights violations for the people of Ukraine, Yemen, Tigray, Palestine and many other corners of our world. A year in which the Mediterranean continues to be a graveyard for refugees and migrants. A year in which there has still been so little done to address genocide against the Rohingya and Uyghur people.

Third, we very much need to affirm, at every level of society, that the essential truth of universal human rights will be at the heart of how we set laws, make decisions and live our lives. That includes tackling the climate crisis, navigating our way through global pandemics, addressing poverty and confronting systemic racism, sexism and hate.

That requires making the shift from treating human rights as little more than feel-good talking points to recognizing they are fundamental obligations that set the ground for change rooted in strong and sustainable public policy.

And finally, let’s set out concrete expectations of the ways that our governments can and must do better when it comes to upholding human rights. Here are some of the items on my wish list:

• Governments across the country should pass laws that will constrain the use of the Charter of Rights’ notorious notwithstanding clause, the very antithesis of what today is all about.

• Canada needs to get off the sidelines of preventing torture and accede to the UN’s 20-year-old Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. Most of our allies signed on years ago, and there is no defensible justification for our failure to follow suit.

• It is time to revoke the Safe Third Country Agreement, which effectively shuts down much of the Canada-U.S. border to refugees hoping to seek protection here. We must push back against the global assault on refugee rights.

• Let’s stop selling armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, whose military continues to be responsible for extensive war crimes in neighbouring Yemen. It is disheartening that this is even up for debate.

• And let’s redouble our efforts for unjustly imprisoned individuals around the world who look to Canada for support. I think of Huseyin Celil, a Uyghur Canadian who has been detained for more than 16 years in China. And also of Dong Guangping, a Chinese human rights defender whose wife and daughter live in Toronto. He was arrested in Vietnam more than three months ago while trying to reach Canada, and there has been no word of him since.

Today is a day of great promise. Our vigilance and insistence are needed to turn that promise into reality.

Alex Neve is a Senior Fellow with the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

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