Reflections and Limitations

John Humphrey was important in the movement to formally define and promote human rights, through his role as the principle drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It would profoundly influence Canada’s first Bill of Rights in 1960, which would be a precursor to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, although federal legislation would use the UDHR as a model to codify rights, the actual implementation and protection of such rights was by no means influenced by the declaration. Humphrey’s principal policy achievement was largely irrelevant to the tangible endowment of human rights in Canada, with socio-economic and political calculations having been the motivating factors.

 

Canadian Reluctance

Canada was not always a role model on the international stage concerning human rights. Suppression of trade unions, internment of so-called “enemy aliens,”[i] racist immigration policies, and events like the Gouzenko Affair garnered international notoriety. From 1946-48, the Canadian government was indifferent and occasionally hostile towards the drafting of the UDHR. Joint Committees in Parliament rejected the notion of protecting what they deemed to be subversive or inferior communities, arguing that abiding by such a statute would hoist undue responsibility onto the federal government and infringe upon provincial authority.[ii] They had nothing to fear, for although Canada would eventually ratify the declaration in the General Assembly’s final vote, it was done in the interests of preserving its international image and pacifying a handful of powerful domestic groups.[iii] The ratification had no tangible effect, because just as signatories like the USA retained infrastructures to consistently violate human rights decades into the post-war era, Canada would severely underperform as well.

Real Progress

“The UDHR is far from perfect. It does not include any mention of fundamental rights… it does not even mention the protection of minorities. But its adoption may well have been one of the greatest achievements of the UN”.[iv] This excerpt, from a 1990s speech by John Humphrey, embodies the frustration that many associate with the world’s largest intergovernmental organization, which continues to set the bar for success quite low. In 1944, Premier Drew of Ontario passed the Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibited provincial hiring practices based on ethnicity, sex, or religion.[v] Fair employment practice acts were passed throughout the mid-50s in all provinces excluding Quebec, based on the Ontario legislation.[vi] The UDHR was not used as a model, and, as Lester B. Pearson said in 1948, “Canada (did) not… invade the rights of provinces.”[vii] Such trailblazing legislation was initiated due to pressures from labour unions, desperate to stay relevant by recruiting more diverse members, and women’s groups.[viii] The booming wartime economy and one million Canadians overseas forced the Ontario provincial government to protect the natural rights of its remaining laborers and not antagonize them.[ix] Not all action was taken under duress; hundreds of millions of dollars were saved annually by the federal and provincial governments in Canada until 1999, since women, who made up 52 percent of the public sector workforce at times, did not receive equal pay for equal work.[x] Some of the most basic rights were protected out of convenience, while others were neglected for long-term gain.

Federally, Trudeau liberalized the Canadian immigration system in 1968, giving preference to immigrants according to merit rather than ethnicity.[xi] The fact that Canada already had a Bill of Rights based on the UDHR was irrelevant in the face of the economy’s needs. Minorities from non-white countries only began to have their rights, property and persons properly protected as a means to make Canada, with its demographic woes, a welcoming place for skilled professionals.[xii] Such policies were pragmatic, and not based in respect of international law or ideals. The protection of those who define Canada’s pluralistic society may have been codified in the Bill of Rights and the Charter, both based on Humphrey’s central achievement, but the will for enforcement was never at the behest of international law. As rational choice theory suggests, powerful factions used the concession of human rights to their own advantage.[xiii]

 

Humphrey in his Own Words

In his later career, Humphrey began to recognize the limitation of the organization that adopted the declaration he authored.  After the UDHR took on the force of an international law, he pondered if any sanctions applied if said law was violated.[xiv] The central concern that he raised in the early ‘90s was the lack of differentiation between generic codification and actual execution, claiming that the mechanisms for the implementation of the UDHR’s clauses were weak.[xv] He criticized the nonbinding nature of General Assembly resolutions,[xvi] as well as the Security Council’s unwillingness to defend human rights unless a member country’s interests or security were compromised.[xvii] His scathing labeling of the UN as the “organization of shame” conveys his disappointment in he institution he embodied.[xviii]  Surprisingly, after making such astute observations, Humphrey later lamented the fact that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not fulfill its international obligations.[xix] He chides the Charter’s drafters for not encoding the protection of linguistic rights or freedom from servitude and arbitrary detention.[xx] While addressing the major shortcomings of the UN, he notes that states will guard their sovereignty fiercely, even blocking food convoys from organizations with impotent international authority.[xxi] Through his critiques of the inability to appropriately sanction nations culpable of human rights abuses, he proves that ratification on paper pales in comparison to dismissive action. Hence, despite the lapses in statutes based on his model, they were relatively inconsequential, since other more pragmatic factors instigated the tangible preservation of human rights.

 

Cautious Praise

The ultimate objective of human rights movements is to secure the provision and protection of the natural rights of all populations. Individuals like John Humphrey did not contribute to the achievement of that objective, as other factors were responsible. The defining and promotion of civil liberties, important activities that he engaged in, do not take precedence over the concessions made by those holding the balance of power. Documents like the UDHR, an incubator of international human rights law, are valuable as points of reference in societies in which the protection of human rights is actually being observed. However, just as Humphrey emphasized the necessity to clearly distinguish between regulation and enforcement,[xxii] caution must be taken in not attributing overly significant value to them, particularly when examining the causes of the supervision, implementation and enforcement of human rights. Fortunately, increased diversity, education and prosperity have diminished prejudice in Canada, occasionally resulting in economically irrational and politically unpopular policy decisions concerning human rights. However, economic symptoms and political opportunism were the precipitating factors of progress, and it is crucial that the legacy of human rights activists like Humphrey be purely associated with themes of codification and publicity. More attention needs to be devoted to examining the true causes of the distribution and institutionalized respect of human rights in Canada, rather than giving undue credit to pure-hearted human rights advocacy, a brand of activism littered with genuine intentions, but lacking tangible results.

 

Endnotes

[i] Andrew Lui, Why Canada Cares: Human Rights and Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2012), 4.

[ii] Andrew Lui, Why, 4.

[iii] Andrew Lui, Why, 5-6.

[iv] The International Bill of Rights – Its scope and implementation, 1990-94, File: Speeches – 1990-1994, Container 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[v] Christopher Maclennan, Toward the Charter: Canadians and the Demand for a National Bill of Rights, 1929-1960 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003) accessed February 2, 2014, 111. http://site.ebrary.com.proxy1.library.mcgill.ca/lib/mcgill/docDetail.action?docID=10119779.

[vi] Christopher Maclennan, Toward, 111-12.

[vii] Andrew Lui, Why, 5.

[viii] Christopher Maclennan, Toward, 111.

[ix] J. Bradley Cruxton and W. Douglas Wilson, Spotlight Canada, Fourth Edition (Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford UP, 2000), 272.

[x] Colin M. Bain, Transitions in Society: The Challenge of Change (Don Mills, Ont.:  Oxford UP, 2002), 92-93.

[xi] Cruxton and Wilson, Spotlight, 453.

[xii] Cruxton and Wilson, Spotlight, 453-55.

[xiii] Miriam Smith, A Civil Society? Collective Actors in Canadian Political Life (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 41-42.

[xiv] Human Rights belong to Individual Human Beings, 1990-94, File: Speeches – 1990-1994, Container 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xv] Human Rights belong to Individual Human Beings, 1990-94, File: Speeches – 1990-1994, Container 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xvi] The International Bill of Rights – Its scope and implementation, 1990-94, File: Speeches – 1990-1994, Container 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xvii] The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and International Law, 1990-94, File: Speeches – 1990-1994, Container 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xviii] Human Rights belong to Individual Human Beings, 1990-94, File: Speeches – 1990-1994, Container 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xix] The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and International Law, 1990-94, File: Speeches – 1990-1994, Container 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xx] The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and International Law, 1990-94, File: Speeches – 1990-1994, Container 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xxi] Human Rights belong to Individual Human Beings, 1990-94, File: Speeches – 1990-1994, Container 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[xxii] Human Rights belong to Individual Human Beings, 1990-94, File: Speeches – 1990-1994, Container 18, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

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