Why Do International Human Rights Matter to Canadians?

Local to Global

Human rights belong to every human being and although we may sometimes think that human rights are more important to people in other countries, these rights matter to all of us. There are many examples in Canada of people whose human rights are not being respected. For example, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights commits Canadian governments to ensuring that everyone has an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and shelter; however 3.5 million Canadians live in poverty. Those most vulnerable to poverty include women, Aboriginal people, recent immigrants, refugees and people with disabilities. The consistently high rates of poverty of these groups reveal the effects of the various forms of discrimination they face. It is the responsibility of all Canadians to know our rights and work to ensure that they are being upheld for everyone.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also has importance for Canadian domestic law, as it was influential to those drafting Canada’s human rights laws, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the federal and provincial human rights statutes. These laws echo many of the principles found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and are important for ensuring that human rights are protected for all Canadians.

People working to reform Canadian law can rely on UN Conventions and international commentary to advocate or interpret Canada’s obligations here at home. For example, in CFCYL v. Canada (Attorney General), the Canadian Foundation for Children Youth and the Law (CFCYL) brought a challenge to the provisions of the Canadian Criminal Code that allow a parent or someone in a parental role, such as a teacher to spank (assault) a child for a disciplinary purpose. If charged with assaulting a child, a parent or someone in a similar role can rely on section 43 as a defence to the charge. The CFCYL argued that this is a violation of Canada’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Supreme Court of Canada did not strike down the section, but did provide guidelines about when spanking or physical discipline is permissible. In developing these criteria, the court considered the Convention guidelines and international human rights law and greatly restricted the circumstances in which spanking a child for corrective purposes is permissible.

Understanding human rights laws is also important for Canadians working to help people in other countries have access to rights. For example, the International Women’s Rights Project (IWRP) has worked for a decade on issues of women’s human rights in Afghanistan. As well, the organization, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan works to help advance educational opportunities for Afghan women and their families and to educate Canadians about human rights in Afghanistan. For many years the Taliban government prohibited women and girls from attending school, as well as placing other severe limits on their social participation. Despite this, some women and children attended secret schools, but many were too afraid of the brutal consequences if they were caught. Following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women have slowly begun to gain back their rights; however the years of strict rule by the Taliban government has meant that there is little infrastructure to assist Afghan women and girls to attend school. Organizations such as Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan rely on international law when lobbying to help women and children gain access to schools and teachers so that they may enjoy their basic human right to an education.