Monday, December 12th, 2016
This past Saturday was Human Rights Day, in recognition of the United Nations’ adoption on Dec. 10, 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When marking the day, our governments decide which themes to highlight from the soaring preamble and 30 high-minded articles of the Declaration.
“The Government of Canada raises, promotes and defends human rights in every international relationship and at every opportunity that presents itself,” Canada’s statement this year read, in part.
“…This includes our work supporting human rights defenders, engaging with international partners and civil society, helping the LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transexual and intersexed] community, working to end the death penalty and torture, advancing the rights of persons with disabilities, and promoting and defending the rights of girls and women…Canada has also become a more active and vocal supporter of the brave defenders who speak up about human rights violations and abuses and who work to hold the powerful accountable for their actions….Today, we highlight and pay tribute to human rights defenders all over the world, who work tirelessly to promote and protect the rights of their fellow human beings, often at great personal risk.”
All of it is important, all worthy of defense, and to the extent that we’re also practicing what we preach at home, so far so good.
But as usual when it comes to discussion of human rights, it’s only half the story – the same civil and political rights story we most often hear about at times like this. We hear less about Article 25 of the Declaration, which talks of the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of individuals and families (embarrassingly phrased as “for himself and his family”, mind you, emphasis added). Article 26 specifies the right to a free education. Article 23 mandates the right to work with remuneration “worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”
In statements of values we promote internationally, these social and economic rights are given short shrift. When we have an opportunity to pick and choose, we invariably do so – and pick other things. Universal health care, for example, is one of the most cherished pillars of Canadian society, championed as our right. When it comes to highlighting values we wish to promote abroad as truly universal, we refuse to go there. Why?
Part of it, hopefully, is shame that we don’t even deliver on it at home, in equitable treatment or access – although the answer is to do better, not stop talking about our aspirations. But standing up for social and economic rights also requires more from us than taking sides from a podium, in a battle that finds most reasonable people overwhelmingly on one side. It requires resources and long-term vision and an unabashed commitment to social justice as it’s actually defined and expressed by the poor and marginalized…all of which require more listening than talking, and so can make governments squirm.
There are parallels between human rights discourse and conventional thinking on the relative importance of treatment versus prevention in health care—the consequences of which Partners In Health staff and patients around the world deal with every day. Such thinking suggests we should focus our energies on making sure there are good prevention programs and educational messaging in resource-poor settings—because actually making investments to enable high quality treatment is too expensive, or naïve, or both.
But we would never accept that dichotomy for ourselves. Of course we need do to both. And we need to call out inconsistencies when we champion something as right at home but refuse to make the same case for others.
So when it comes to paying tribute to human rights defenders, we choose to pay tribute to all the partners, advocates, and donors who support Partners In Health’s work. You have our ongoing gratitude and admiration.
Mark Brender is National Director of Partners In Health Canada