Human Rights Day: Individual rights come with collective responsibility

Posted on December 10, 2021 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: , – Opinion/Contributors
Fri., Dec. 10, 2021.    By Isha Khan, Marie-Claude Landry

You have been asked to wear a mask and get a vaccine. If you don’t, you cannot participate in social gatherings, fly in a plane or eat inside a restaurant. You might lose your job. Is this discrimination? A violation of your human rights?

Some commentators claim that it is, cherry-picking clauses from the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Canadian Human Rights Act to argue their case.

They are wrong.

As lawyers and leaders of two important Canadian human rights organizations, we view such assertions as not only false, but dangerous. These misguided claims risk our health and prolong the pandemic by encouraging defiance of health orders and ignoring science. They endanger human rights. And they distract public attention from the real and crucial human rights issues of our time.

December 10 is Human Rights Day. Today marks the anniversary of the adoption of the UDHR, which embraced the idea that everyone is born free and equal in dignity and rights. It arose from the genocide and atrocities of the Second World War, a dark chapter of history.

The UDHR is based on the notions that we all share a fundamental humanity and that we all have fundamental rights — and that those rights must be protected for the good of society. However, what is often misunderstood is that individual rights and freedoms can only flourish when we also protect the well-being of society as a whole.

People opposed to COVID-19 restrictions have their favourites among the 30 articles of the UDHR. For example, they commonly refer to Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Conspicuously overlooked is Article 29, which adds crucial context. Article 29 recognizes there will be times like this when reasonable limits on individual freedoms are necessary for the collective good. Protecting the public from a deadly pandemic is certainly important to our global health and to our shared humanity.

Everyone claims to support human rights. But they don’t always recognize that individual freedoms are always accompanied by individual responsibilities to others — to our elders and children, to our neighbours and to our global community. Without this understanding, human rights can be warped and attacked, resulting in hate, violence, threats, racism and fear.

Our population has become polarized in its opinions, distorting perceptions and breeding intolerance. While social media gives us valuable platforms for sharing opinions, online anger (and worrisome digital algorithms) have emboldened and popularized those who use ignorance, misinformation and complacency to serve their personal agendas or get more attention — often by stirring up more anger and division.

Today, as we celebrate the 73rd anniversary of this foundational human rights document, let’s commit to learning what it actually says and what it really means. Because to protect human rights, we must also understand them.

Otherwise, we may be doomed to repeat the very history the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written to prevent.

Isha Khan is the CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Marie-Claude Landry is the chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, based in Ottawa.

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