When I moved to CCLA, a friend asked me in his characteristic critical fashion: “So, what are you going to do now?” I responded, smiling, that my new job was about working for people’s rights. “I thought we had already enough rights”, he responded.
In a way, his remarks were prescient of the challenges facing human rights advocates. We are told that there are too many rights, too many rights for suspected terrorists, too many rights for asylum seekers, too many rights for alleged criminals, too many rights for arrogant or disrespectful high school students, and that there is a need to return to a discourse of responsibilities and of earned “privileges” of Canadian life.
At times, there is a sense that the human rights discourse is fatigued, out of fashion, yesterday’s speech. The Charter is presented as an impediment to effective policing and warrants are described a hassle, too much of a bureaucratic demand. Tonight, I want to reflect on how to position human rights demands in this environment. As Human Rights Day is the day when we reflect on where we are and what are our commitments for the year to come (a New Year’s Day for Human Rights Defenders), I want to share with you my Five Human Rights Day Resolutions.
1. Challenge the Impoverished Vision of Democracy
We have to invest into a discourse that sees human rights as the potential for a prosperous, innovative, just and fair society. Legal norms should be seen as drivers of good policy making, not simply as impediments.
Modern democracies – that aim to live up to democratic ideals and not just state them – should recognize that legal norms that are respected are good governance, and that various institutions need to work well for the true promises of democracy to be realized. Democratic life demands a genuine social capacity to self –monitor, to self-reflect and to analyse: accountability of decision-makers, civil society’s participation and genuine discussions. Vibrant democracies are not just about democratically elected governments, they require institutions that protect rights and support public participation. Vibrant democracies should be committed to ensuring that most people who live, work and pay taxes participate in the governance of their communities. In that sense, we should worry about public policy developments that thwart or limit the number of people who can vote. This is one argument to continue to articulate in the current debates about immigration policies when the government seeks to further delay access to citizenship (for designated asylum seekers), or strip it completely like in the context of temporary foreign workers for example. To the extent that we reserve the right to vote to citizens, we should not tolerate that access to citizenship be delayed or excluded.
Any time that there are restrictions on the right to vote, on the number of people who can vote, we should worry about the state of our democracy.
2. Develop Accountability as a Human Right
My second resolution is to move our human rights claims to more clearly articulate what happens when they are not respected and strive to imagine better institutional arrangements that diminish the likelihood of right violations. Conversely, we should continue to demand that more coercive powers be accompanied by more accountability : more police powers should be accompanied by better accountability rules; wider ministerial discretion should be matched by better transparency and reporting; increased security budgets aligned with better evaluation of the direct and indirect costs.
Democracies are like fragile ecosystems: the equilibrium is easily broken when new unchecked powers are created that may lead to further deep-seated inabilities to challenge.
So we need to maintain, practice and develop our accountability muscles and reflexes – they do weaken through non-use.
3. Renew the “Human” in Human Rights
There is a face to injustice and violence. It has to be shown.
Human rights provide basic rights to fairness, to respect of one’s dignity and equality. These are rights that transcend borders and boundaries and extend to everyone no matter where one is born. This is a challenge for our legal vocabulary : we constantly create categories to define who can get what and we have accepted that non-citizens are entitled to different due process rights, as though justice, procedural fairness does not mean the same thing for different human beings.
We must re-energize our thinking and avoid the pitfalls of creating categories that undermine the very concept of humanity and safeguard the rights of some, but cheapen the rights of others.
4. Enlarge the Tent and Refuse to be Defined by Oppositional Politics
Chris Hedges laments in one of his books about the failure of the intellectual classes to “democratize”. He suggests that the left has been unable to fully engage in the bottom up revolution, and continues to engage in top-down instruments to impose an agenda. This leaves the powerless to express their anger and resentment through right-wing politics of exclusion, as opposed to solidarity-building politics.
Human rights are not about right-wing or left-wing politics: they are about protecting the right to live and the right to be treated with dignity of everyone. In a way, human rights are about reaching out to others and trying to understand their fears and their objectives. It is about ensuring that there are less victims in the world: less victims of violence, less victims of injustice, less victims of discrimination. It is incumbent upon us to make people recognize human rights violations in their lives and in the lives of others. Oppositional politics, pitting some victims against others, never work in the long run.
5. Protect the Right to Dissent
Above all, my resolution is continue to protect the right to dissent, the right to challenge and the right to challenge both the human rights violators and the human rights advocates.
The experience of the G20 in Toronto and of the “printemps érable” in Québec point to the way in which we need to constantly defend the right to peacefully demonstrate. Our society gets easily swayed by fears of disorder and is often willing to sacrifice dissenters to a promise of “order”. We must worry about the portrayal of protests as inherently dangerous, as events to be feared and to be discouraged. We should be concerned when the act of throwing a rock in the window, certainly illegal and not to be condoned, is treated more severely than assaults or fraud. A vibrant democracy recognizes that politicians need to know where the electorate is at, and what people think and feel strongly about. Politicians meet people all the time and are influenced by the people they encountered. In a way, rich people have a more direct access to politicians, they have their lobbyists. Poor people have the feet, they need to be able to walk and protest outside and in large groups to be heard.
Our fear of disorder has led us to accept policing tactics that aim to label and intimidate. Protesters are identified, questioned, imprisoned, released on conditions, and often subject of surveillance. The instruments developed in the context of the War on Terror seem to have crept into to our thinking about dissenters: we no longer incarcerate for what people have done, but for what they might do, we punish people not for the actions they take, but for the people they know. This slippage from the exceptional measures of anti-terrorism to day-to-day security was to be expected, but it is dangerous. We should never accept that the ends justify the means in the context of policing: this will create further victims. We should worry about the new forms of legal disabilities that rely on flimsy “risk assessments”: people can no longer board planes, no longer volunteer or work in certain places or no longer cross borders.
The protection of a meaningful right to dissent requires an insistence on rigorous decision-making processes in our assessment of blame, of labels or of privileges. We ought not to be swayed by innuendos or rumors to impose any penalty or deny any right to people.
As we celebrate Human Rights Day and the upcoming New Year, let’s remember the great men and women who cared, who bore witness to injustices and spoke out. Let’s formulate our good wishes:
To the powerless, may you continue to hope and believe in justice, to the powerful, may you recognize the value of accountability and democratic responsibilities and to the indifferent, may you listen and act.