Anything to Celebrate?

By Mary Robinson, Phil Fontaine | 1999-03-01 12:00:00

On the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the economic, social, and cultural rights lack much recognition. Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, and Phil Fontaine, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, ask whether disadvantaged groups have any cause for celebration.

Why Two Covenants?

by Mary Robinson

It seems appropriate that in this year, when we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we do it in a way that portrays the Declaration as a breakthrough in recognizing the dignity and worth of the human being and spotlights the importance of safeguarding individual rights. The Declaration must also be important in small places, in all communities, and in ways that are real to people. Issues of poverty, of discrimination, of a lowering of the social security net, and of the family and the right to education are fundamental to life chances and must be considered.

Fifty years ago there was a determination to break from a terrible past - the legacy of two world wars, of the Holocaust, and of Hiroshima. There was a strong sense of "never again!" This was written in a straightforward language declaring the rights of people, which could be asserted against governments. Not rights of governments, but rights of people. People would owe duties to the community, as Article 29 states, and they would have dignity and worth, each and every one of them, in having these rights.

And yet we might ask: why two separate covenants? Might it not have been possible to encapsulate the protection and enforcement of human rights in one overall document? But we know that that was politically impossible, for reasons internal to the United Nations and outside it. And so human rights were separated into two groups; economic, social, and cultural rights on the one hand and civil and political rights on the other.

This artifical separation between two sets of human rights has hampered the full realization of the principles of the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was expressed strongly by the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights on the occasion of the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. The committee said: "The shocking reality is that states and the international community as a whole continue to tolerate all too often breaches of economic, social, and cultural rights which, if they occurred in relation to civil and political rights, would provoke expressions of horror and outrage and would lead to concerted calls for immediate remedial action."

In effect, despite the rhetoric, violations of civil and political rights continue to be treated as though they were far more serious and intolerable than direct denials of economic, social, and cultural rights.

We cannot celebrate. Sadly, that strong sense of "never again" has not been realized. We have seen genocide twice in this decade. We have seen violations of human rights - civil and political, economic, social, and cultural. Millions of children die because they lack access to safe water, basic health care, and food. The issue of food security was raised with me this afternoon as an issue here for families in Newfoundland. The right to education, to shelter - these are basic rights. How many millions in our modern, well-resourced world do not have what they need to fulfill the dignity and worth that we guaranteed in the Universal Declaration virtually fifty years ago?

The new mandates of the Commission will allow in-depth studies to be made on the effects of extreme poverty, structural adjustment policies, and foreign debt on the enjoyment of economic and social rights by the most vulnerable groups of society. They provide a better definition of the right to education and permit the identification of ways to implement the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development. This is where the debate on economic and social rights must go to become more effective to ensure that at the international level there are standards and ways of measuring their implementation .

Benchmarks are necessary for the realization of impoved economic, social, and cultural rights and for the assessment of their implementation or lack of implementation. I welcome this opportunity to indicate the next stage in our challenge. We have to commit ourselves, not to the rhetoric, but to the reality of bringing home that economic, social, and cultural rights are not only part of the dignity and worth of each individual but must be realized, implemented, and measured in effective ways and must influence the ways at the national and international level in which we protect and promote human rights.

Aboriginal Rights and Human Rights

by Phil Fontaine

What are universal human rights? Whom do they benefit? Are aboriginal rights human rights? I will try to answer these questions first and then I will address the issue of celebration. Do we, as Aboriginal peoples, have reason to celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

When the Universal Declaration told the world fifty years ago that all people, in every political society, have rights which they could legitimately claim from their government, it created great expectation all over the world, including amongst aboriginal peoples. We thought that the Universal Declaration would help us have our rights recognized and respected. We understood that aboriginal rights were human rights too. But the fact is that the majority of aboriginal peoples in Canada have not meaningfully enjoyed rights for most or all of this fifty-year period. Our franchise rights were restricted or non-existent until 1960. Even after the vote was granted to us, by and large it was a hollow right. Any voter knows that to have meaning the right to vote must lead to some realization of rights. The reality is that our people emerge from their Third World living conditions to go to the polls every five years or so only to return - election after election - to their inferior homes, inferior education, inferior jobs, inferior health care, and to other forms of systemic discrimination.

All of us have human rights horror stories to tell, including mine. Fifty years ago I was four years old. Within two years of Canada signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, like most First Nations children in Canada, I was taken away from my mother and father, the home life I enjoyed with my brothers and sisters, and placed in a state-sponsored residential school for the next ten years. In other words, my entire childhood and the most formative years of my life were overtaken by the state. Like many thousands of other First Nation children, while being detained without my consent and against my parents' will, I was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by people who were entrusted with my care. I was not permitted to speak my language, my race and culture were ridiculed and degraded, and I was routinely denied educational, health, and other social benefits, as well as the home life non-aboriginal children and their parents enjoyed and took completely for granted.

Children like myself and our families had no recourse for these gross violations of our human rights. No human rights commission existed to which we could turn. No complaint mechanisms were in place which would provide us with a lawyer when we had no money to pay. No human rights vocabulary even existed to help us record our abuses and categorize them within the legal human rights framework. There was no convention on the rights of the child. No anti-racism convention existed. There was not even sympathy. When some small voices were occasionally heard, the typical response of government or church authorities was denial, retribution against the complainant, or most often inaction and indifference.

The treatment that my community, my family, and I received at the hands of the Canadian state, in the name of the Canadian people, was not unique. For us it was more or less routine. Along with all the other indigenous and tribal peoples of the world, our culture, our land, and our identity have been systematically assaulted by governments. Such activities as desecration of religious sites seem to follow as a matter of course. (Need I mention Oka or Ipperwash?)

Sanctity of the land

Much of the history of human rights violations involves peoples who have endured unsuccessful attempts to protect our land against invaders. To us, the land is basic to our existence. Our relationship to the land is of a profoundly spiritual, even religious, nature. The fact that many First Nations entered into treaties with the Crown made little difference in terms of the human rights violations and land seizures to which we were subjected. While the existence of treaties has conferred some significant benefit in recent times, their breach has been of no significant concern in the international community.

Finally, in 1981, 33 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, a working group on indigenous populations was struck by the United Nations to draft international standards to protect the rights of indigenous peoples throughout the world. From the perspective of international law, this draft declaration is the most significant development to date in the area of indigenous rights. It is presently being considered by yet another working group and will eventually go before the General Assembly of the United Nations for further debate and perhaps adoption. But it is unlikely that it will be adopted for a number of years yet. It has been fifty years since the world was presented with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But as far as indigenous rights are concerned, there is still no consensus in the international community about their meaning or implementation.

Despite these failures, aboriginal peoples on their own initiative have managed to negotiate some protection of their rights through self-government initiatives, treaty negotiations, court actions, and mediations. But a disturbing recent trend is backlash against some of the modest human rights gains we have managed to achieve, such as the Nisga'a treaty, the apology for residential school abuses, the Delgamuukw decision, and more autonomy for individual First Nation communities.

The most visible backlash is in the media. In February of this year, for example, a widely-read magazine criticizing the Federal government's apology for residential school abuses carried a photograph of smiling aboriginal children at a residential school. On its cover was the headline, "The Holocaust that Never Happened." To make such a cruel assertion in the faces of those who survived one of the worst human rights abuses in Canadian history demonstrates the strength of the anti-human rights sentiment of the backlash. We, as First Nations people, as aboriginal people, are totally committed to the principle that our human rights are as fundamental as those of our non-aboriginal brothers and sisters. The aboriginal peoples of Canada want to be free and equal, to live decent lives, to be communities with their own personality and culture, and to live in peace and with dignity with each other and the world. That is our quest, no more and no less.

Catch Phil Fontaine's speech on Vision TV on March 1, 1999 at 8:30 PM.
Mary Robinson's speech will be aired March 3, 1999 at 8:30 PM.
Mary Robinson spoke in St. John's, Newfoundland, on November 23, 1998.
Phil Fontaine spoke in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on November 17, 1998.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1999

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1999, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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