Madam Speaker, as the official opposition's human rights critic, it is obviously a very great pleasure for me to take part in this debate to mark the fact that 1998 will be the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to note, as the Deputy Prime Minister has done, that this declaration was written by a Canadian, John Humphrey, a citizen of Quebec, and by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Although respect for fundamental rights is now guaranteed the people of Quebec and of Canada through their respective charters, this is not the case in certain countries, where governments are still trampling citizens' individual freedoms and fundamental rights.
We, as parliamentarians, have an opportunity today to restore the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to its rightful place in the forefront of national and international debate. The 50th anniversary must mark the renewal of the declaration and not just the commemoration of a date.
My colleagues will have a chance to go into more depth on the historic evolution, present situation and probable future of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its enforcement throughout the world. But I will begin, if I may, by recalling briefly the birth of this declaration, certainly one of the major historic events in humanity's evolution.
On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This marked the turning of an important page in the history of mankind.
Indeed, the horrors of the second world war greatly contributed to raising world awareness and truly expanding the concept of human rights. As early as June 1945, the United Nations Charter and the statutes of the International Court of Justice were ratified in San Francisco. The following year, the Commission on Human Rights and the Commission on the Status of Women were created.
Finally, after adopting the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the UN passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we are celebrating today.
Since then, there has been continuous progress in terms of respect for basic individual rights almost everywhere in the world. I say "almost" because, unfortunately, in certain areas of the globe, there is still a great deal of progress to be made.
Right from the start, in order to better ensure respect for basic human rights, and to promote their implementation, the UN decided to set international standards, protect human rights and provide technical support where needed. In order to attain these objectives, however, the United Nations Organization had to draw up clear rules relating to human rights, hence the necessity of adopting this Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This universal declaration may be the keystone of United Nations declarations on human rights, but it is not the only one. In fact, the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development, and the 1992 Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance strengthened the United Nations' moral interventions.
It is, moreover, important to keep in mind that all of these declarations are not legally binding, and that the UN, lacking a real United Nations military force, performs more of an international ombudsman role.
Fortunately, on the other hand, the international conventions and covenants have force of law in the states ratifying them. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both drafted in 1966, are highly binding on signatories.
International conventions, on the other hand, focus on more specific attacks against human dignity such as the 1969 convention on racial discrimination, the 1981 convention on discrimination against women, the 1987 convention on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and finally the 1990 UN convention on the rights of the child.
All these measures have achieved concrete results such as stays of execution, the release and medical care of prisoners, and sometimes even a complete overhaul of legal systems emphasizing the importance of human rights.
For instance, Bulgaria, Malawi and Mongolia recently received assistance in drafting a new constitution and new legislation, both conforming to the conventions on human rights.
Even more recently, in 1993, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution creating the position of High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose duties consist in preventing and managing crises, sometimes by providing technical assistance to states in transition and co-ordinating interventions aimed at promoting fundamental rights.
As we can see, we have come a long way over the years in our respect for human rights, and we should proudly emphasize events like the one that brought us here today. The future celebrations around the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be more than just that. This great event should not be just another occasion for organizing huge banquets, cocktail parties, receptions and shows for the benefit of venerable dignitaries the world over.
We are all familiar with the propensity of our leaders to slap each other on the back as a sign of satisfaction and to congratulate each other while singing the praises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It will be available in pocket format, as a poster either laminated or beautifully framed in acrylic, and it will be seen at its best. People will shout that they love it, they venerate it, and they will very pompously wish it a very happy 50th birthday.
But for thousands of victims of torture and summary imprisonment by unscrupulous governments, this anniversary will not be a joyous occasion. In fact, for all these people, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains nothing more than a hope based on the action of countries, which, like Canada, protect fundamental rights and might have some influence on the leaders of those countries that still refuse to do so.
Often, this declaration is universal in name only. There was nothing universal about it when the Government of China decided to crush the student movement for freedom in Tiananmen Square barely a few years ago.
There is nothing universal about it for the victims of oppression in East Timor or for the children exploited in India or for the political prisoners in Indonesia or for the demonstrators in Belgrade and other major Serbian cities.
Canada has an important role to play in this area. We must develop a policy of international trade that includes respect for human rights. We can no longer simply close our eyes to these atrocities in the name of profit. We must make it known to the entire international community that Canada will make no human rights compromises out of a need to trade with these countries. Is it not both deplorable and embarrassing when the Prime Minister of Canada signs lucrative trade agreements with countries heavily criticized by Amnesty International without any mention whatsoever of human rights?
I might point out that barely a few years ago, when the whole world knew that the communist regime in Romania was systematically ignoring the fundamental rights of its citizens, Canada welcomed its dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, with open arms and great pomp. Madam Speaker, I will conclude, if I may have one minute. I would not like this situation repeated.
In conclusion, we must continue to promote basic freedoms wherever necessary. We will stop the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is truly what it is supposed to be: universal. The whole world will have achieved its goal: peaceful co-existence of peoples and respect for human dignity. Are we dreaming?