Today is Human Rights Day, an international celebration of the fundamental rights held by all human beings. This special day occurs every year on December 10th, the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 by the UN General Assembly. With 2018 marking the UDHR’s 70th anniversary, this year’s Human Rights Day serves as a launching point for a year-long campaign to advance the rights of everyone around the world.
The UDHR is made up of 30 articles, comprising what the UN calls “inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being.” It has been updated many times and translated into more than 350 languages globally, including over 100 African languages. (Click below to explore each article further.)
In Canada, the government has taken notable steps recently to protect the human rights of vulnerable citizens. This past summer, Parliament passed Bill C-16, enshrining important legal protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. This legislation modernized the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, making it an explicit hate crime to target someone for being transgender. Further, the law ensures that sentencing practices are considered fair in court, “so that a person’s gender identity or expression can be considered an aggravating circumstance by a judge during sentencing.”
Canadians also witnessed an historic apology by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau towards LGBTQ civil servants who were systematically discriminated against by successive Canadian governments between the 1950s and 1990s. During this time, governments inserted themselves into the private lives of military and public service employees, with the goal of ousting those that did not lead “heteronormative” lifestyles. A few of those former employees were present during the apology and wept, but expressed hoped that Canada will continue protecting the rights of its workers going forward.
However, despite positive steps like these, Canada still has a ways to go in other key areas — notably in upholding the rights of Indigenous Peoples. First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities continue to endure significant challenges such as poverty, lack of access to affordable food and clean water, inadequate housing, mental health crises (particularly among youth), and under-resourced education. All the while, systemic discrimination against Indigenous Peoples, the legacy of the residential school system, and ongoing land and environmental disputes still loom large in Canadian society.
Internationally, 2017 has been marked by significant human rights struggles, and an erosion of human rights, in places around the world, including in Myanmar, Syria and South Sudan. Recently, we shared an op-ed by Emina Ćerimović of Human Rights Watch about the nearly 5,000 asylum seekers in Lesbos, Greece who are living in an extremely run-down camp meant for only 2,000 people. The situation is particularly dire for women and persons with disabilities, as safety and accessibility are almost completely lacking in the camp.
Elsewhere, reports of an actual human slave trade out of Libya caused the United Nations to alert the world to these “heinous abuses of human rights.” A few weeks ago, undercover CNN reporters witnessed a number of men being sold at auction in Tripoli, where human smugglers are selling those with debt as “day labourers”. Currently, the U.N. Security Council is seeking statements of condemnation from other countries as it attempts to investigate further and identify the victims of these terrifying human rights violations.
Human Rights Day is an important moment to reflect on the progress the international community has made in upholding human dignity. It is also a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the power of social connectedness to unite individuals and communities in overcoming shared human rights struggles. After all, one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the UDHR is freedom of assembly and association.
In 2018, let’s resolve to continue defending human rights in our home countries and lend support to others around the world!