This year, the foundational document known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70.
The document famously decrees that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
The declaration was ratified back in 1948 in the aftermath of the Second World War and the revelation of Nazi atrocities. It has since spawned a number of international treaties, covenants and customary laws, of which all United Nations member states have ratified at least one.
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That’s not to say that there hasn’t been controversy. To be sure, the assertion that human rights are in fact universal has been hotly contested. Some have contended that the entire notion is born out of the West, and its philosophical emphasis on the individual.
That being said — with the obvious acknowledgement that some relativity exists between different cultures and belief systems — it is reasonable to conclude that freedom from suffering is a transcendent aspiration among people everywhere.
In 2018, human rights remain imperiled in numerous settings around the world. Researchers calculate that there are more than 40 conflicts raging across the globe at present. Millions have been killed, forcibly displaced, or enslaved as a result.
Innocent people — often women and children — remain all-too-frequent casualties in these wars. Killing, torture, rape, slavery, forced enlistment, and attendant famine have all become commonplace, at times despicably used as deliberate tactics of war. A cursory review of the Amnesty International’s literature confirms this.
Canada is not immune
While conflict is a clear threat to human rights, there are other mechanisms which cause equally great suffering: grinding poverty and famine; persecution on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or belief.
Countries like Canada are fortunate to exist in prosperity and far from these conflict zones. Nevertheless, such a buffer does not preclude human rights abuses — Human Rights Watch’s report on Canada points to a number of offences ranging from violence against Indigenous women and girls, and rights violations against Indigenous peoples in general, to the abuses found in Canada’s mines and sweatshops overseas.
Clearly, however, as a society, we are largely spared from the horrors visited upon many people the world over.
Unfortunately, while this privilege is often met with a rather pathetic self-congratulation, it should be instead seen as an obligation. As social philosopher Noam Chomsky once stated with respect to Western nations, “…by comparative and historical standards we are all fortunate to enjoy great freedom. Freedom plainly offers opportunity. Opportunity confers responsibility. Responsibility to use the freedom one enjoys wisely, honestly, and humanely.”
This responsibility means that we should be actively supporting those fleeing from persecution, violence and tyranny. We should strive to be a kind and just society.
Canada could and should take in more people
The argument that we cannot absorb more people is fallacious for anyone who has driven across the northern reaches of the country. Once one slips a couple hundred kilometres north of the American border, the country is wide open.
In his book, Maximum Canada, Globe and Mail journalist Doug Saunders argues compellingly that our population could not only be substantially larger — he suggests the figure of 100 million — but that we are actually hampered by our (small) current population level.
There is little reason not to push on this issue. Immigrants to this country have done well. In fact, many sectors would be in trouble without first generation Canadians.
All this to say that when viability aligns with the moral imperative, it only makes sense for a number of reasons to move forward. The argument might be trickier if accepting greater numbers of migrants jeopardized the well-being of current Canadian citizens.
But it doesn’t.
And the underlying point here is that the adherence to human rights principles dictates that if people are fleeing hardship and persecution — anywhere — it is incumbent on those of us who can help to extend a hand.
Many, many countries with far fewer resources and far less wealth have accepted more of those in need than Canada. We can do better.
We can also stop trading and supporting nations with egregious human rights violations. This not only sends a message to transgressive countries, but it also sets an example on the global stage.
Our politicians need to know that this is an election issue, a matter that Canadians care about.
As we recognize the declaration this year, it is worth remembering the spirit — and the motivation — which produced this document some 70 short years ago.