That this House take note of the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998 and the importance of this declaration in the promotion of human rights both domestically and throughout the world.
Mr. Speaker, I rise to lead off an extremely unusual debate in the House of Commons. It is the kind of discussion that we need to have more frequently not only in Parliament but among ourselves as Canadians.
This debate is on human rights in the world and at home. Two years from today, the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the first time in the history of man, a declaration was adopted in which all peoples of the world agreed that, and I quote:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
I would like to thank the hon. member for Mount Royal and chair of the Standing Committee on Human Rights and the Status of Persons with Disabilities for having requested this debate and the former hon. member and Secretary of State for External Affairs, Walter McLean, for his hard work.
For all of us who have known her in the House of Commons, it is no surprise that it is the hon. member for Mount Royal who is the prime advocate for this discussion, where we examine our conscience as parliamentarians and our hearts as human beings. It is no surprise because the phrases "advocacy of human rights" and "Sheila Finestone" go hand in hand.
I would also like to recognize the contribution of the United Nations Association in Canada, which encourages Canadians to focus on education, public awareness, the participation of young people and community involvement in human rights on this historic occasion.
The United Nations was created so that the world had a place to come together. Right now, in the search for a new secretary general, countries are thinking more about their veto than reflecting on the fact that the United Nations is the only world vehicle we have for advancing true world harmony.
Yes it is possible for countries to stymie one another at the United Nations but to do so for reasons of national vanity is very wrong. At the UN we come together, we put aside our individual interests so we may act in harmony and collective honour.
As President John Kennedy said in his state of the union address to the United States Congress in 1962: "Our instrument and our hope is the United Nations, and I see little merit in the impatience of those who would abandon this imperfect world instrument because they dislike our imperfect world". John F. Kennedy's statements are as true today as they were when he spoke them in 1962.
Yes the United Nations needs to be reformed. But member countries also need to reform their attitude toward the United Nations and they should start doing something about paying their back dues.
The people of Canada consider Boutros Boutros-Ghali highly talented, extraordinarily committed, most dignified and a great friend of Canada. We hope whoever succeeds him will have the wisdom to continue his sensible and considered actions.
Two years from today, celebrations will be held around the world to mark the anniversary of this declaration. Three years from the end of the month, we will be celebrating the advent of the new millennium.
It is my profound hope that as we prepare for these occasions, Canadians take to heart the awesome meaning of these words: "Now, therefore, the General Assembly proclaims this universal declaration as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations to the end that every individual and every organ of society-shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms".
What the world agreed to 48 years ago was not just a statement from governments. It was a statement for each and everyone of us in our daily lives, in our communities and in our own homes.
The declaration committed us to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It committed all of us to equal pay for equal work, a radical concept those many years ago. It committed us to respect for privacy, to peaceful assembly, to opposition of inhuman punishment, to protection against discrimination, to freedom of movement, to just and favourable conditions of work, to food, to clothing, to housing and medical care and to basic education for everyone in the world.
Have we achieved these goals completely here in Canada? No we have not. Have we achieved these goals completely in our personal lives? I know the answer for me is no and I suspect the same is true for most other Canadians.
We have all from time to time advanced our own interests at the unfair expense of someone else. We have harboured views of people based simply on their language, or their religion, or their social or economic status, or their race, or their sexual orientation, or where they lived in the country.
We tend to promote our own rights. Too often we make disparaging remarks about others rather than try to find a way to work together to do things well.
The upcoming celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the declaration will give us an opportunity to underscore the fact that Canada and its people have always been at the forefront of those defending human rights. Canada and its people, especially, know, however, that they can always do better.
The United Nations declaration was drafted by a Canadian professor, John Humphrey, who died last year. Professor Humphrey, who was from Quebec, carried the torch for Canada's campaign in favour of human rights worldwide. His words, in their wisdom, convinced the world. At the time we acknowledged that: "Yes, we make mistakes, and yes, we can do better and we believe we must do better".
This desire to do better and more underlies Canada's commitment to peacekeeping. It also underlies our commitment with respect to multilateralism and our faith in the United Nations.
Despite the many infractions against human rights, it is important to remember that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has helped to change things for the better.
Democracy has spread in Latin America, the Berlin wall has come down, apartheid is no more, the threat of nuclear war has faded. These were all just dreams not so very long ago.
Yet at the time this declaration was drafted, most scoffed at the dream of an end to totalitarianism or the opening of the iron curtain. These were the visions of a freer world that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights dared us to dream.
And as hope has come to so many in the life of this declaration, our world continues to rest on other dilemmas and reflect on other problems: the problems in northern Island, the stalemate in the Middle East, the millions of frightened refugees in Rwanda and Zaire, the manifest in ethnic hatred in Bosnia, the terrorism in Paris, Tokyo, New York and London. We need to be inspired by human rights, to renew our hope and translate it into action. In the life of this declaration time and again people have endured great suffering and have achieved great progress.
As we approach the millennium it is sobering to realize that at the beginning of the current millennium there was no Magna Carta, there was no democracy. People were either masters or slaves. Communities were built up or thrown away on the basis of race or ethnic heritage. Human beings were treated as gods or garbage depending upon where they were born, what they believed in or what they held sacred.
It is even more sobering to realize that as we approach the dawn of a new millennium, race, religious and ethnic divisions are still tearing people apart across the globe. For all of our political advances as human beings, for all of our economic and social accomplishments, for all of the marvels of industrialization, people are still bombing one another because of how somebody looks, how they sound or what they think.
This is the dark side of human nature. This is why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is so important. It makes it possible to bring out the positive side of human nature.
We are grateful for the chance to be able to debate widely diverging points of view in the House, and we do so day in and out. We also know that, as citizens, we have the power to bring about change by marking an X on a piece of paper.
But the credit is not due solely to us in the House. Many generations of Canadians have preceded us.
We are the envy of the whole world because, for decades, Canadians have acted responsibly and fairly towards each other and, in particular, towards the rest of the world.
The United Nations was born out of a war where a star or a triangle sewn on a lapel meant death. The United Nations was born out of a war in which millions of teenagers became dismembered to save the world from a madman who would not respect basic human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights consists only of a short preamble and 30 articles. It is the length of a political pamphlet but it is the critical affirmation of decency which flows from the work of the world coming together to stop another world war.
That this document was written by a Canadian, and that Canadians like Mr. Pearson took the initiative to have this declaration adopted, are surely reasons to be proud. We should also take much credit for the enforcement of the principles set out in this declaration.
Certain steps in achieving respect for human rights will take much longer than others, or will lead to controversy. Certain steps will require that people set aside old grievances and old settlings of account.
And Canada's contribution to all these steps will force us to remember the mutual respect we owe one another as citizens of this country.
It will also encourage us to continue in our role of leader in financial, human and political issues abroad.
It is far too easy to point to instances in which all of us as a country, and each of us as individuals, have failed to live up to that dream of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is far too easy to give up trying to solve very complex and difficult problems. But no great human challenge, no great human dream was every easy, and no human glory was ever achieved without determination and hard work.
In two years it will be the 50th anniversary of the declaration which speaks to justice, freedom and peace. Three years from now we will be entering a new millennium. Where do we go from here? How do we get there? No one knows for sure, but one thing is certain. If we follow the principles laid out 48 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we can be certain that tomorrow will be a better time than what we inherited.