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"This International Human Rights Day, the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is expressing grave concerns about the ongoing violations of human rights in direct contravention of international treaties and domestic laws." — Bert Blundon, NUPGE President
Ottawa (09 Dec. 2022) — The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the Declaration) was officially proclaimed on December 10, 1948, and remains one of the UN’s major achievements. It is an important instrument and symbol in the fight for justice and equality worldwide. Unfortunately, as we approach the 75th anniversary of the Declaration, human rights around the world continue to be violated.
75th anniversary looming and still more needs to be done
As we approach next year's 75th anniversary of this historic achievement, it is also important to be realistic about what is happening around the world. Human rights are very often ignored by governments and powerful interests, especially in countries where there is less recourse for the most marginalized. Action against violators at an international level is rare. States hold most of the power to enforce and even to recognize these human rights. Countries that violate human rights must still be held to account. There is a broad treaty system, the United Nations Human Rights Treaty System, that outlines the obligations of States and is continually monitoring and putting pressure on governments to comply.
The Declaration is still a critical tool by which to judge compliance in countries. There are 30 articles in the Declaration that outline basic human rights. These include the right to health, education and equality, the right to free association, which includes forming and joining trade unions and the right to not be discriminated against based on sex, race, ability and other protected grounds.
Wars, minority rights and popular uprisings
In many parts of the world, human rights are non-existent, or legal fictions, that do not improve the lives of citizens. Authoritarian regimes easily ignore human rights, and the poorest people around the world do not receive the most basic services and rights as guaranteed in the Declaration. This is the reality for billions of people.
These situations are made worse in conflicts such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This war has brought daily reminders of how international norms are violated during war. This conflict has received unprecedented exposure in the age of social media, and has exposed the complete breakdown of the rule of law and adherence to human rights. There are many other conflicts that do not receive this level of scrutiny and where the victims have gone unnoticed. Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Ethiopia, Haiti, and Palestine are all ongoing conflicts that expose people to human rights violations. Human rights are universal. We must therefore protect the rights of every person, especially noting that the most vulnerable in societies are least able to protect themselves.
The most vulnerable include minority groups such as 2SLGBTQIA+ people in the many countries that criminalize these communities. It also includes religious or ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Uyghurs in China, or the Kurds in the Middle East.
The popular uprising in Iran is another example of the importance of demanding respect for human rights. What began as a demand for freedom for women in that country has become a mass movement against the repression by the Iranian regime. There are now reports of executions related to the protests and continued crackdowns by the military and police.
Health care a human right increasingly at risk
In Canada, and around the world, the pandemic has stressed health care systems. In many places, these systems are now failing as the pandemic continues and governments are unwilling, or unable, to address the failures.
This lack of action on the health care crisis is apparent in Canada. An aging population, an aging workforce, and the ongoing impacts of the pandemic are all pushing provincial and territorial health care systems to the brink. Instead of dealing with this crisis, and with the urgency it demands, governments continue to fight with each other while patients and workers suffer. In the midst of this unprecedented crisis, the Premiers chose to undermine negotiations with the federal health minister on increasing funding from the federal government. They chose instead to demand a meeting with the Prime Minister and reject even basic accountability mechanisms for the additional $28 billion in federal health transfers they were seeking.
Canadians are still waiting for action. NUPGE and its Components continue to press federal, provincial and territorial governments to take action on the health care crisis. Internationally, NUPGE continues to advocate for health care as a human right. This advocacy, includes taking action to address the vaccine inequalities exposed by the pandemic, and the barriers created by rigged intellectual property rights and trade agreements.
Labour rights are human rights
Canadians value human rights — and labour rights are human rights. Freedom of association, the right to collectively bargain and to form unions, these are rights that are recognized at the international level and are enshrined in the Charter. In Canada, governments continue to attack these rights.
Recently, the government of Ontario invoked the notwithstanding clause to try and force education workers back to work and to accept a collective agreement that the government imposed. Massive pushback by unions across the country forced the government to back down. This case is an illustration of governments using legal loopholes to deny human rights.
Ontario has lost a case in which it was taken to court for capping public sector wage increases to 1% annually for a 3-year period. The Ontario Superior Court ruled that this was unconstitutional. While this case can still be appealed, this decision is a major victory, as legislation which prescribes wages is being increasingly being used by provinces to cut the effective wage of public servants. With rampant inflation, low wage increases are tantamount to a pay cut for workers. Fairly negotiating through a collective bargaining process is essential and is constitutionally protected in Canada.
Every day must be human rights day
"An injury to one is an injury to all" was originally spoken in reference to labour rights, but it applies to all human rights. "We believe that we must work every day to protect our human rights, including workers' rights," said Bert Blundon, NUPGE President. "Dec. 10 is an important day to reflect upon the need to continue to advocate for, implement and realize human rights around the world, but it also cannot be left to only this day. Just as violations occur every day, our efforts to achieve a world that respects, protects, and fulfils human rights for all must be done every day."