Why Human Rights Matter to Today’s Politics

                                           “If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom;
                                           and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more,
                                           it will lose that too.” W. Somerset Maugham

I recently participated in the Broadbent Institute’s inaugural Progress Summit in Ottawa. On the long flight back home, I began to scribble notes on the back of a newspaper – about the state of modern politics – the discontent of Canadians, the prevailing political discourse, and the relevance of human rights to the politics of today and to our freedoms.

Canada continues to be at or near the top of the rankings of UN Human Development Reports, and yet Canadians seem more discontent than ever. They know that the process of dismantling their economic and social rights is underway and unabated. The big market economy and capital roams freely through out the planet and with little or no regulation. The excesses of Wall Street that brought the world economy to near collapse in 2008 have been met with little consequence, few prosecutions, gaping holes in the regulatory regime and massive profiteering by the bankers and CEO’s – income inequality is increasing. How did we get here?

The drive for economic and social rights emerged from the massive deprivations of the 1930’s and the mass violence and deaths of millions in WWII. World leaders understood that humanity required a moral and legal foundation of a whole group of universal rights – indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated – as a common standard of achievement for all peoples. These rights were indispensable for peace, justice and stability. President Roosevelt had called for the US to adopt an Economic Bill of Rights:

                                             “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and
                                             independence.  Necessitous men are not free men.  People who are hungry
                                             and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made”

Roosevelt’s speech reflected the broad spectrum of political thought from politicians across the globe, including conservatives, liberals, and social democrats. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights led to treaties enshrining core political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. The economic and social rights were not merely lofty ideals and add-ons, but a practical response and hard-headed doctrine to strengthen and enable civil and political rights. Canadian politicians joined other democracies to create the modern welfare state as one way of incorporating all of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. This decision shaped the lives and formed the social and political identity of modern Canada for decades to follow – the one my generation grew up in.

At the heart of this vision is the belief that access to health, work, education, housing and democratic participation is an obligation of modern states for every person. Up until the late 1970’s states tried to provide this – leaders believed and set about to deliver the social necessities that were essential to political and civil rights. Ordinary families, working people, immigrants, women and minorities made many advances. Governments undertook their responsibilities to provide basic social rights of health, education, retirement, worker’s rights, and to advance equality and tolerance. Those were prosperous times and more shared in that prosperity. The movement toward more equal societies led to better societies.

So, what happened? We should not be surprised at the level of discontent that Canadians feel today. They are understandably concerned about the future. There has been and continues to be a systematic destruction of the social and economic rights that had become the norm in the early decades of the post war era.

Thatcher, Reagan, the Chicago School of Economics emerged. Big money entered to influence the political discourse and process. The so-called middle way was replaced. Thatcher declared there was “no society”, only individuals. Governments began to cut programs and spending. Taxes were cut. Bill Clinton cut welfare programs that Roosevelt had advocated and he deregulated the financial industry. Conservatives rolled back equity programs designed to assist the disadvantaged. The market was elevated to mythical status and governments stepped out of the way. Tax cuts were given an almost religious status of virtue, conversely taxes demonized. Tax revenues fell more heavily toward individual taxes and less on corporate taxes.

Millions of children and families live in poverty amidst tremendous affluence. Inequality increased and continues to grow. Workers have been squeezed and concessions became de riguer. Two income families are the norm and many families still barely hang on. Families led by a female single parent live significantly in poverty. Social mobility has decreased. The public commons and regulatory regime are sacrificed for corporate interests. Environmental standards are either eroded or inadequate to address the challenges of health, climate change and economic diversification. The political leadership continues to assert the private sector will alleviate problems. Crisis of confidence and citizen disempowerment comes to mind.

Hard won economic and social rights – human rights – are under attack. Globalization does present new challenges and opportunities. The idea of human rights is the universal and global idea of our time. Human rights emerged out of the ashes of war and mass suffering. Surely, we cannot afford another global political and economic crisis.

The founders of the modern welfare state understood that the best guarantee of stable democracy, for peace and security, was that equitable levels of economic and social rights were essential and that the market economy required major involvement by governments if these rights were to be obtained. Global trade is a reality and we live in a global economy – we have never been more inter-connected – there is a revolution in mass communication, information and exchange. Innovative policies at the political level can ensure that trade and capital flows are fairly regulated to ensure human needs and rights are upheld and advanced.

Leadership that is far-sighted and committed to justice and advancing human rights is the best answer to furthering broad based economic prosperity and social advancement. Failure to address these profound trends – the withering away of social and economic rights – will risk the peace and stability that was forged after the harsh lessons of history. Human rights – social, economic, political, civil and cultural rights – are integral to human well-being, progress, peace and stability.

The Universal Declaration states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”  This is what progressives can rally upon,  stand up for such principles and rights, and fight for a more equal and just Canadian society.

About Bill Sundhu

Canadian lawyer, Former Judge, Member of Kellogg College of University of Oxford (Masters Degree in International Human Rights Law 2010).
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