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Defenders for Human Rights

Understanding How Rights are Protected

A Balance of Rights and Freedoms

We all have rights and freedoms, but they are not to be taken for granted. People have long struggled to achieve the rights and freedoms that we greatly value in Canada today. We must be ever vigilant to preserve these rights and freedoms, as history has demonstrated time and again that they are fragile.

Philosophically, human rights are absolute, however in real life there are limitations. There are times when our use of individual or group rights will interfere, compete, or collide with someone else’s rights and times when a balance must be found between individual freedom and the greater good.

For instance, where is the line to be drawn between safeguarding personal privacy and national security? Where do equality rights conflict with religion and culture? When does reasonable accommodation stop being reasonable and become an undue hardship? There is no simple or correct answer to these questions. However, as a society we have to set in place laws and practices for the protection of human rights. This may require people to take action in their own lives and communities, or get involved in social movements or even a legal challenge in the courts.

Protecting Human Rights in Law

International law is the set of rules generally accepted as binding by the international community. Domestic law is the set of rules accepted as legally binding within a country. International and domestic law is written in documents also known as “instruments”. These international and domestic instruments help a country rule its affairs abroad and within its borders. They also guide countries in policy-making and their intent is to protect and safeguard its citizens.

There are numerous terms to name human rights instruments developed and endorsed by nations of the world; these can be found in the Glossary of Terms.

  • Treaty
  • Convention
  • Declaration
  • Covenan
  • Charter
  • Agreement

Human rights instruments can be legally binding (hard law) and morally binding or aspirational (soft law). A Declaration is a soft law document and a Treaty, Convention and a Covenant are all hard law documents.

Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a soft law document, there was a need to protect the rights within it in hard law documents that would make these rights enforceable. Therefore, since the UDHR’s adoption in 1948, the United Nations has adopted nine (9) core hard law instruments that reflect and expand on the rights contained in the UDHR.

These are:

  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination – ICERD (1965)
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – ICCPR (1966)
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – ICESCR (1966)
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women - CEDAW (1979)
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – CAT (1984)
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child – CRC (1989)
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families – CMW (1990)
  • International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance – CED (2006)
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – CRPD (2006)

The UDHR, along with the ICERD and the ICCPR form what is known as the International Bill of Rights. The International Bill of Rights aims to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all people around the world. Beyond the nine (9) core instruments, there are hundreds more instruments that form the international and domestic human rights frameworks.

For the purposes of the classroom, we have selected simplified versions of the following declarations and conventions, some of which are not included in the nine (9) core instruments, to support the Speak Truth to Power Canada lesson plans. They are listed in an ascending chronological order:

  • United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (First drafted by Canadian John Humphrey in 1946; adopted by the United Nations in 1948)
  • Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Entrenched in the Constitution of 1982; it replaces the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights)
  • United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Adopted by the United Nations Assembly in 1979; Canada ratified the Convention in 1981.)
  • United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Canada signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in May 1990; ratified it in December 1990. The Convention came into force in Canada in January 1992)
  • United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006. Canada signed the Convention March 2007, and it came into force in May 2008)
  • United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (The United Nations General Assembly adopted UNDRIP in September 2007; Canada endorsed UNDRIP in November 2010)