The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the central organizing principle of global human rights, transformed a noble aspiration into binding standards and a source of power and authority on behalf of victims. Now human rights are under threat on three fronts.
Many civil liberties and privacy rights have been sacrificed on the altar of enhanced security measures. Our government has abandoned some Canadians jailed and abused overseas under the anti-terrorism label. Our military is accused of handing over suspects to Afghan interrogators skilled at breaking more than toothpicks.
Our law-enforcement officers have transferred the burden of risk of death and injury to innocent people – through lax protocols on using tasers, for example. A new British inquiry has recommended a return to community consent-based policing, arguing that the police too often conflate proportionate into reciprocal use of force in dealing with potentially violent offenders. Canadian police should take note.
Border agents are drifting into a “make my day” machismo as their default mode of dealing with international travellers. Banning gadfly British MP George Galloway from visiting Canada was especially egregious and counterproductive in giving him extra publicity.
The former chief human-rights champion became a leading delinquent. U.S. abuses in Guantanamo and Iraq weakened our collective capacity to protect human rights. When others mimic open defiance of the law by the world's dominant country, Washington cannot ask them to uphold principles it itself violates. The post-9/11 debate on justifying torture to prevent terrorist attacks ignores the fact that torture makes it to every short list of acts so abhorrent that they can never be publicly defended.
The post-9/11 climate of fear rippled outward, fed Islamophobia and, most recently, resulted in the good citizens of Switzerland banning the construction of minarets – an act of intolerance worthy of Saudi Arabia.
A second source of alarm is that human-rights machinery is threatening to become a monster mocking the meat it feeds on. Human rights should protect individuals from political, social and religious oppression. The state has the responsibility for enacting laws and creating institutions to monitor and enforce them. Groups can capture the political agenda and subvert the process to “protect” group human rights by penalizing individuals who dissent from community views and behaviour.
Criminalizing hate speech is a case in point, especially when offence is established by the hurt sensibilities of a complainant. University campuses, which should be among the front-line defenders of free speech, have been among the first to succumb to political correctness and lobby group pressure. Yale University Press, for example, published a book on the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed but refused to reprint the cartoons.
In some jurisdictions, in hearings before quasi-judicial bodies such as government-appointed human-rights commissions, complainants suffer no penalty even if their case is found to be frivolous and wholly without merit. Defendants can have their lives ruined financially, professionally and socially. Eventual vindication offers little solace or compensation. Machinery meant to defend human rights has become politically motivated attack organs, using taxpayer money to curtail public freedoms. They are paradigms of a bureaucratic solution: well-intentioned, labour intensive and expensive. The value of an end – promoting human rights – is used to employ a self-defeating means to achieve it.
Who will take the state out of the debating halls of Canada?
The final source of threats to human rights is from intergovernmental organizations – a Canadian citizen, for example, being put on a secret United Nations blacklist with no judicial oversight on the basis of unknown, unchallengeable, unreliable and often flimsy evidence.
Parts of the UN human-rights machinery have long been captured by its enemies. Its scandalous performance has sometimes been a travesty of the noble vision and ideals animating the global movement. The protection of internationally recognized human rights are likely to remain fraught. The UN is made up of states that are not overly eager to create enforceable machinery against themselves. Even liberal democracies often sacrifice human rights to national security and commercial calculations, proving their courage against Myanmar while remaining discreetly silent on China and Saudi Arabia.
States can also band together at the UN to stifle free speech by proscribing injuries to religious sensibilities. In March, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution sponsored by Pakistan and supported by the Organization of Islamic Conference urging all countries to pass laws banning criticism of religion. The resolution was dressed up in the language of human rights (freedom of religion).
This is why, even as advocates seek advances in the human-rights agenda, they must hold fast to the truth that human rights is about protecting individual beliefs and actions from group-sanctioned morality at local, national and global levels of governance.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.