On Human Rights Day 2011

Human Rights Day falls annually on December 10 in commemoration of the 1948 signing of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration—often said to be translated into more languages than any other document in history—is the foundation of the modern human rights movement, and an integral component of the U.N.’s work as an international organization.

Much has changed in the world since 1948—63 years is a long time. We’ve seen some societies become more open and tolerant, more just and more embracing of diversity, while others have regressed and become more unequal. Across the world, nations have changed as people have continued to demand their basic rights. Consider the United States, long held up as a beacon of liberty and justice: in 63 years, the nation has gone from institutionalized racism under Jim Crow laws to millions of Americans, of all backgrounds, electing an African-American as their President. The Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, which made these changes possible, were of a piece with the greater human rights movement.

For Americans, it seems archaic and shameful now that so many people were denied access to basic rights like voting and education simply based on their skin colour. The country has learned from the past, and now looks toward the future. Just this past week, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spoke out about the rights of LGBT people and the very real human rights issues they face both at home and abroad. Recognizing human rights is an ever-evolving aspect of democracy; as more people are granted the rights they are due, democracy becomes richer.

Beyond America’s borders, working toward human rights for various oppressed groups has allowed nations and their people to flourish and realize their potential. Some of the biggest achievements have been in women’s rights. Around the world, women have slowly gained more access to education, reproductive health resources and political power. The inherent equality between men and women is consistently ranked among the most basic and most powerful fundamental human right in any society. When women, particularly young women, are enabled and encouraged to build productive, secure and independent lives, their societies are transformed. We’ve seen it time and time again. There is still a vast amount of work that needs to be done in this area—especially in developing and underdeveloped areas like India and sub-Saharan Africa—but improvements are being made every year. In fact, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was shared between three women who have worked to promote human rights for women in their native countries.

Even here in Canada, one of the most free, equal and just nations the world has ever known, there are still areas for improvement. Over the past decade we’ve seen great strides made to improve life for gay and lesbian people, transgender persons, Aboriginal Canadians and women. Bill C-279, a bill that would amend the Criminal Code of Canada to recognize hate crimes in regards to transgender people and gender identity, was nearly signed into law before the May election that nullified all pending legislation. The law is simple and will affect relatively few Canadians; the implications for those it would affect, however, are massive. The right to live without fear of discrimination is a very basic right that many people take for granted, and one that Canada needs to engrain even more deeply into the national psyche. This bill was recently reintroduced jointly by Liberal and NDP MPs and, with luck, will eventually become law.

We Canadians are lucky to be citizens of a highly developed nation that emphasizes freedom and equality, and we must use our rights to help those who still lack them. One way is to exert political and economic pressure on nations with deplorable human rights records. From political repression and censorship in China, to a lack of sexual and reproductive health options in places like Africa and India, there are huge areas for improvement. Our governments need to use diplomatic and financial options—withholding aid funding, leveraging trade or freezing assets—to ensure that countries treat their populations with universally recognized human rights standards. To make sure this is happening, we as citizens must be engaged and willing to confront our elected officials on global human rights issues, criticize the areas where they fall behind, and demand basic fairness for people whose countries we deal with internationally.

As we reflect on 63 years of accomplishments in working toward human rights for all, our pride must not deter us from the great amount of work still to be done, nor the millions who still lack fundamental rights. Happy Human Rights Day to all.

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