Madam Speaker, today we are approaching the 50th year of the magna carta of human kind. When the United Nations General Assembly adopted this magna carta, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on December 10, 1948, United Nation member states committed themselves to recognize the inherent dignity of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
I want to thank the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, for agreeing to launch on this day this important debate. I would encourage all people to think about these matters over the coming year and plan some activity to celebrate next year's 50th anniversary.
I also wish to express appreciation to the Hon. Walter McLean, a colleague of this House for many years, a secretary of state himself, who has been very instrumental in raising all these issues and talking about the importance of planning ahead.
This declaration was a powerful idea that inspired us. It recognized that we all have rights as human beings.
That is not because we inhabit a particular country, are the product of a particular class, of a particular group or the product of a particular ethnic background; it is because we exist as human beings.
This declaration was drafted by a really fine Canadian. I am glad that my colleague in the Bloc noted this in his remarks. I know that the family of John Humphrey and John Humphrey himself would have been very proud of this day. Unfortunately, he passed away last year. He lived in the Mount Royal riding and he and Eleanor Roosevelt were the key drafters of this declaration of human rights. Although most of his fellow citizens might not even recognize this great Canadian's name, his achievement has an ongoing impact on the functioning of our governments and, as a result, on the way that each and every one of us conducts our lives.
The universal declaration revolutionized international law by enshrining the principle that the international community has an abiding and important interest in the fundamental rights of all human beings. It established the framework for the international recognition of the rights of human kind.
In the 50 years that followed the United Nations put into place covenants, principles and monitoring activities which all demonstrate a fundamental international agreement to recognize different aspects of the indivisible, inalienable and fundamental rights of individuals.
During the ensuing 50 years, and I feel I must repeat this, the United Nations adopted conventions, principles and control mechanisms which all reflect this strong desire on the part of the international community to recognize all aspects of the indivisible, inalienable and fundamental rights of the individual.
The principles, the goals and the fine phrases have been put on paper and agreed to. Now what?
To no one's surprise, when we look at how the international human rights system actually functions, we confront a paradox. Many of the ringing statements of principle in the universal declaration and various covenants are honoured more in the breach than in observance.
The United Nations human rights system is a patchwork. The monitoring and enforcement mechanisms are imperfect. Too often the politicians, the bureaucrats and diplomats natter on and on about what is wrong and how to improve things, but it is often too little and too late. It is a very slow process.
I heard the secretary of state a few moments ago allude to the fact that in Beijing we had to reaffirm the fact that women's rights are human rights, inalienable, et cetera. It was quite a critique on the state of the world, although let us not despair.
What about the people? We have all read about the Holocaust, which is now called the Shoa. We know about racism, fascism and intolerance. What have we learned? Have we learned very much?
All we have to do is turn on our television to see the horrors of Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and mass killings in Rwanda. It is no wonder that when we did our television study children find that the most terrifying thing on TV is the daily news. The world is still struggling with ethnic, cultural and religious differences. How to accept and live as equals peacefully and respectfully is still the challenge to meet.
Other people at risk, with disadvantages to overcome are the disabled. They are still among the poorest and rank at the bottom or the end of the queue to receive services and remain the most marginalized and vulnerable group in this world.
Then we must complete the circle, for there is hope, a light shining to mark the way.
In fact, we are still guided in our actions by hope, because without the Universal Declaration and the other UN conventions, we would have no landmarks, so to speak.
The peoples and nations of the world and their governments would be disoriented, without purpose, without standards, without ways to measure their progress or to know what they did right or what they did wrong.
So this brings us to that ultimate recognition. I would say that domestically we have moved ahead, that the UN's involvement in human rights has become part of the evolving process, a kind of perpetual motion machine. In the half century since the adoption of the universal declaration internationally accepted values have shifted and goals as well as programs have moved forward, in large part pushed by the very existence of these United Nations declarations of human rights principles.
Domestically, Canada confronts the same paradox. The principles of fundamental human rights for Canadians are well entrenched here. We have cause to be proud of section 15 of our charter of rights and freedoms. We have cause for pride in other aspects of our charter; the recognition of human rights in the basic constitutional fabric of this country.
The Canadian Human Rights Act assures protection against discrimination in areas within federal jurisdiction. The language of human rights and of inclusiveness is spoken everywhere throughout Canada, in all our provinces and no more or no less, might I say, than in my own province of Quebec, which passed the first human rights act in Canada in 1977.
Like the United Nations, Canada has ways of monitoring compliance with human rights standards. The supreme court, of course, is one and the most important, but there is as well the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The standing committee that I have the privilege to chair is another. We may be different singers but we sing the same tune.
Progress has been made, no doubt about it. But why does this paradox, the difference between principle and practice, continue to confront us so starkly even here in our own country? I would say that the perpetual motion machine I spoke about earlier comes into the picture in Canada too, just like at the international level.
The acknowledgement of human rights in Canadian laws and institutions has fostered an environment where awareness of rights has promoted awareness of practices. The awareness of practice has promoted awareness of flaws, and awareness of flaws has promoted demands for change. And while changes have been made, more needs need to be address. The goal remains the same but the distance between the players and the goal posts has widened and so we have to become even more vigilant.
In the Standing Committee on Human Rights and the Status of Disabled Persons we have become very aware that we need to keep the gap from widening even more. As we develop and apply new technologies we must keep in mind that all of us, knowingly or unwittingly, attach social values and responsibilities to technological developments.
Take the debate over new technologies right now and their implications for privacy, which is a human right. We have been looking at new physical and biological surveillance techniques and personal identification practices, including new ways of testing an individual's genetic make-up. We have become aware of the tension between progress and rights and why it is so crucial to protect privacy in the face of new technology.
Supreme Court Justice LaForest said in a 1990 decision: "The limits of our personal privacy define in large part the measure and the limits of our freedom. Not to be compelled to share our confidences with others is the very hallmark of a free society. That is where we hope human rights is headed".
We know there is no ultimate answer in finding the balance between an individual's right to privacy and society's broader requirements. Defining human rights is a constant process of evolution, just as our Canadian federation is constantly evolving, particularly when balancing rights against social policy.
In order to build equality into the fabric of our society we have to take a positive approach that goes beyond using the courts to deal with abuses. Recognition of fundamental human rights is essential for individuals to develop a sense of belonging, a sense of equality and a sense of the rights and obligations of citizenship.
A true economic and social democracy, like the one I believe Canada must keep striving for, has to build equality and justice into every aspect of every human relationship. We must never lose sight of that goal. We must intensify and strengthen our message. That is the reason we must emphasize the importance of marking the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1998; plan now, act later.
As the drafters of the charter did almost 50 years ago, we must use the concepts of human rights to point the way to ongoing respect for each other as human beings. We can move toward our vision of equality but we can do this only together for the full enjoyment of our lives.
We can do it together to more fully experience justice, peace and freedom.