When the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948, it was only the first step in a long journey to recognize and protect the rights of human beings all over the world.
How far we still need to go was starkly evident this year.
The horrific death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis cop ignited ongoing Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, in Canada and abroad, demanding a reckoning with the anti-Black racism that still blights western societies. Protesters in Hong Kong, Belarus and Iran pushed back at autocratic, rights-denying regimes. In Canada, the country’s systemic racism towards its Indigenous people was captured in detail on video by the late Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman allegedly abused by staff as she lay dying in a Quebec hospital.
Then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everything about the pandemic is about human rights,” says Alex Neve, outgoing secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada. Apart from imperiling some of the most fundamental rights – the right to life, health, a livelihood – the coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact on poor and racialized communities. It has also laid bare the gross inequities in our societies. “We’ve been made to see that some of the most essential professions in our world are the most exploited, the most underpaid and least valued,” he says. “COVID has become a dramatic human rights wake-up call.”
Neve, who has spent 20 years at the helm of Amnesty’s Canada section, is one of the many activists who have devoted their lives to upholding the human rights enshrined in the UN’s declaration. He recently passed the torch to Ketty Nivyabandi, a former activist in her native Burundi who came to Canada as a refugee in 2015. Nivyabandi has said that one of her priorities as the new secretary-general will be to spotlight Canadian businesses whose exports enable human-rights-abusing countries abroad.
Amnesty’s focus has broadened in the nearly 60 years since it was founded in Britain to fight for the release of political prisoners. Today, it also campaigns on behalf of women’s, Indigenous and LGBTI rights, those of refugees and migrants, and for those who are socially and economically disadvantaged.
The group has had a long and productive relationship with the UN, even as it remains critical of the organization’s failings. “Politics so often stands in the way of making progress there,” Neve says. “Think of the many ways in which the UN has never risen to the crisis in Syria, as a glaring example.” But at the same time, “great things do keep happening,” he adds. Notably, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a landmark document that the Canadian government intends to incorporate into domestic law.
That will make a huge difference, says B.C.-based lawyer Ardith Walpetko We’dalx Walkem, who specializes in Indigenous law. “UNDRIP is going to shift everything,” she says, noting that in the past, human-rights laws haven’t dealt with the unique nature of being Indigenous. The declaration asserts not just individual, but collective rights. “It protects the rights of a group of people to exist as a people,” Ms. Walkem says, as well as their right to self-determination.
Today, many Indigenous Canadians feel excluded from existing human-rights law, says Ms. Walkem, a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation. A report she undertook on behalf of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, released earlier this year, revealed as much. “It was stunning,” she says. “We did a survey of over 100 [Indigenous] people and, overwhelmingly, they thought that human rights were for other people.” Their experience of racism was so widespread that they felt filing a complaint would make no difference.
“Truly, the human-rights framework we have in Canada is an achievement, but it’s incomplete,” Walkem says. “We still have something to add that’s based on Indigenous laws and ways of protecting our dignity. If we were to fully embrace that, we would have a greater conception of human rights and it would be more appropriate to who we are as a people.”
Although incidences such as the Joyce Echaquan case and this fall’s violent dispute over Mi’kmaq fishing rights in Nova Scotia are disheartening, Walkem believes there’s an overall public will for Canada to address the ongoing disparity between its Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. “We want to see ourselves as fair and just,” she says, “so when it’s pointed out that we’re falling down, there’s something in us as a country that says we want to do better.”
Walkem credits Indigenous activism with helping create that awareness. The Idle No More movement of the past decade and a new generation of activists have made a significant impact on attitudes. “Canadians have become much more comfortable with the idea of Indigenous peoples playing a strong and expanding role within the country,” Ken Coates, author of #IdleNoMore and the Remaking of Canada, wrote in a Globe and Mail editorial this year.
The public has also come to see the extent to which Canada’s Indigenous peoples have suffered through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with its exposure of the tragic residential school system, and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – government initiatives that were spurred by years of activism on the part of groups such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada, KAIROS and Amnesty International.
The achievements of human-rights activism, both in Canada and globally, over the past 70 years are what keep human-rights veterans such as Amnesty’s Neve going. While there remain many horrendous abuses, there are also millions of ordinary people fighting back. He points to everything from the public protests that brought down corrupt governments in Lebanon and Sudan, to the massive climate marches in Canada and countries throughout the world.
“That is certainly the pathway forward,” he says, “and it’s a pathway that’s lit up by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”