Our relationship with the voices of the vulnerable

  • Subtitle: Human Rights . . . Here & There
Written by  Posted Date: December 10, 2012
b_150_0_16777215_00___images_stories_01-CANADIANLawyer_Standard_photos_sonyanigam.jpgThe 2012 tag line for Human Rights Day (today, Dec. 10) is “My Voice Counts” — highlighting the rights of all people to make their voices heard in public life and be included in political decision-making.

This year marks the 64th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted in 1948. In 1950, the General Assembly noted the declaration marked “a distinct forward step in the march of human progress” and invited all states and interested organizations to observe this day.

I grew up in an era when government was committed to hearing the voices of the vulnerable, and actively supported a wide variety of civil society groups that represented individuals who belonged to vulnerable populations for reasons of gender, race, age, ability, etc. During this time, Canada was interested in exploring the scope of human rights, especially in light of our new constitutional rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The state was interested in defining its human rights responsibilities in relation to its citizens. It was a time when government recognized that to be a truly democratic country it also had the responsibility to listen to minority voices. It invested in grassroots non-governmental organizations to tell government what it was missing.

Over the past seven years or so, there has been a shift in federal policy. The current government no longer sees an obligation to support civil society groups, or “special interest groups.” Funding has been cut to a number of women’s, native, prison, and environmental organizations that were providing programming and services to communities and feedback to government. No doubt these groups were also critical of government policies, but how else can we do better if we don’t hear where we are not doing so well?

The amount of money saved in this process of de-funding civil society is so small compared to the overall federal budget that the argument for cutting funds cannot rest on the idea of fiscal prudence.

What is more likely is the leaders of the present government disagreed with the socially progressive policies of the preceding government and the social changes that followed. Canadian society became more inclusive and accepting of different kinds of people and ways of living that most likely did not exist in the imaginations of many of the people who share the current government’s point of view. And so, the government is working hard to turn back the clock. Undoing support for civil society groups that represent these various constituencies through de-funding and changes to Canada Revenue Agency rules regarding charitable status is part of this process.

This reminds me of the winter schoolyard game, perhaps no longer permitted, where we would scramble and scrape to reach the top of the snow mountain to declare, “I am the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal.” When you were at the top of the mountain, you were the boss of the world. So I guess it is only human nature that those who are in power want to exercise their will, and resist seriously considering opposing points of view. This is the tit-for-tat politics we are now all too familiar with and disappointed in.

And herein lies the beauty and the genius of the UN Declaration of Human Rights: it captures and puts into words — despite differences in race, culture, and religion — a globally accepted baseline of sine qua non elements that contribute to human dignity that all individuals should benefit from regardless of which government is in power.

Implicitly it recognizes that, we are all kings and we are all rascals. We all deserve dignity and we are all capable of denying it to others. Governments change and impose their own pet ideas on their citizens for a variety of altruistic and non-altruistic reasons. Citizens require protection from these changes. For this reason, people need human rights to hold their governments to account, not simply a variety of benefits and services.

Social psychologists have noted that although all people have a tendency to want to help people in need and to care for others, compliance with good deeds increases when there are negative consequences to selfish behaviour. In other words, an all-carrot-and-no-stick approach is less effective if you want to get people to do the right thing.

Voices advocating for human rights through naming and shaming campaigns, producing research reports showing the negative effects of problematic policy, and legal challenges to legislation and practices are a necessary part of democratic society. They may be uncomfortable, but as a friend of mine once said, “pain is a part of growth.”

For more information on the silencing of Canadian civil society groups, you can visit the Voices-voix web site.

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Sonya Nigam

Sonya Nigam is Director, Office of Human Rights at the University of Ottawa. She can be reached at snigam@uottawa.ca

Column: Human Rights . . . Here & There

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