Sunday, February 03, 2013

Social and Economic Rights

Last year United Nations Special Rapporteur, Dr.  Oliver De Schutter came under fire from Federal Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

De Schutter had expressed concerns about the barriers that many in this country face in getting enough good food to eat.  

“Canada is much admired for its achievements in the area of human rights … but access to adequate diets, too are human rights issues - and here much remains to be done,” De Schutter had said when visiting Canada in May.

Minister Kenney went on the offensive arguing that the Special Rapporteur should focus on countries where there is widespread hunger.  Looking at Canada isn’t a “very intelligent use of resources” and is “completely ridiculous,” huffed Kenney.

But does Kenney really appreciate what is happening around the world on the human rights front?

Bruce Porter, of the Social Rights Advocacy Centre (, would say he doesn’t.

I had the privilege to hear Porter speak in Hamilton last summer. He focussed on the “very important new developments in the human rights world particularly in the area of social and economic rights.”

These rights were originally articulated in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled. A bill and two covenants ratified by a sufficient number of individual nations in 1976 meant that the declaration took on the force of international law.

Now domestic judicial bodies must pay attention to rulings in other jurisdictions.  For example, a ruling in a South African case dealt with the Grootman community’s right to housing.  The ruling articulated the concept of “reasonableness.” 

Porter argues that this ruling suggests that governments must “take reasonable measures in conformity with available resources” to address issues like poverty and housing.  (Porter has written about the case at http://www.escr,_Reasonableness.pdf)

Municipal governments are accountable too.  Martha Jackman and Porter write:

Recalcitrance on the part of one level of government, however, should not prevent others from implementing their own mechanisms, procedures, and strategies for ensuring meaningful accountability to international human rights. City or municipal charters can be adopted to implement the right to housing and an adequate standard of living within all areas of municipal authority.  (International Human Rights and Strategies to Address Homelessness and Poverty in Canada: Making the Connection Social Rights Advocacy Centre, September 2011.)

Of late the Canadian government has failed to adequately address social issues using the excuse of financial constraints, essentially arguing that dollar concerns trump human rights considerations.  But Porter notes that it is “no longer acceptable to treat social and economic rights as policy objectives.  Government is obligated to provide effective remedies.”

Porter says that many in the U.N. system have become increasingly alarmed with what they are seeing in Canada as, unlike many countries, we have resources available to ensure that no one is hungry or homeless and yet choose to allow violations of social and economic rights. 

Bruce Porter and others spoke at an event in Hamilton on the right to an adequate standard of living.  This video captures some of that event.

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