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Volume 12 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2005

Human Rights In the Mature Commonwealth

- Murray Burt
Ex-President, Commonwealth Journalists Association and member of CHRI’s International Advisory Commission

Even in the mature Commonwealth, there are human rights breaches attracting attention and criticism. Ironically, these prove to be beneficial as they can also lead to solutions.

For a prosperous country whose people enjoy one of the world’s highest standards of living, stories on Canada’s work to advance human rights tends to be eclipsed by more dramatic experiences in the less fortunate and developed members of the Commonwealth. After all, bad news carries further than good news.

Muray Burt

Interestingly, India is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) but has not committed itself to the Optional Protocols to the CRC on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and the involvement of children in armed conflict. On the contrary, smaller Commonwealth nations like Tonga and Bangladesh have been able to meet the criteria of the EFA due to visionary and strategic programmes, opting for decentralised planning for EFA, further government accountability, transparency and continued commitment to eradicate illiteracy with civil society groups.

However, this does not mean that worthy and sensitive work is not being done to identify and correct human rights breaches in Canada. The difference perhaps is that blessed democracies like Canada have the luxury of time and resources to effect speedier change than most. This effectiveness tends to overshadow rights issues (be they big failures or small successes) that deserve an airing in the Commonwealth.

Four headlines in recent months in Canada make exactly that point:

  • Racial profiling curbed by installing minicams in police cars
  • The protection of rights of addicts and alcoholics
  • Mediation trumps court trials in advancing rights disputes
  • Quebec Court forgets the principle that there can be no hierarchy of human rights.

Cameras in police cruisers

Two years ago in Canada, the term ‘racial profiling’ was barely known to the common person. Today, all public agencies, employers and, especially, all levels of police have been sensitised to this insidious breach individual’s rights, particularly freedom from discrimination on account of ethnic differences. of an

Examples of this right’s travesty occur on a daily basis at border crossings, in renting of accommodation, in bank credit decision-making, but most of all on the police front lines. Altercations during arrest are not new, the only difference is that accounts of violence against ethnic minorities are getting more of a hearing now by the courts and the evidence produced is more likely to be scrutinised.

Units of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Ontario Provincial Police have installed mini-cams (automated digital cameras) to document evidence of behaviour in the police cruiser, showing both the prisoner and arresting officer. It adds to the credibility if the issue is raised in court and secures the rights of both parties when conflict occurs.

Securing the rights of people susceptible to alcohol and drug use

A Canadian provincial human rights authority has voiced concerns on the practice of unwarranted testing of persons suspected of using alcohol and drugs in workplace.

The Manitoba Human Rights Commission is of the view that many a time people with such dependency are singled out and often unfairly dismissed as a result of such unwarranted practices.

“Often the tests are totally reasonable, as in the case of bus drivers or teachers or for those who are responsible for public safety. However, what should be kept in mind is that the tests should not be considered as the sole reason for unreasonably punishing a user of alcohol and drugs,” said Janet Baldwin, the Chairperson of the Commission.

Mediation faster than courts

Human rights records in the Canadian province of Manitoba show that out of court mediation processes are replacing court decisions in the speedy settlement of rights disputes. More than half of the province’s 279 complaints closed in the year 2002 were settled by mediation and conciliation. As a result the authorities are promoting it for its efficacy, speed and economy. The most common ground for complaints across Canada - 33% of them - are issues involving discrimination against the disabled.

No hierarchy of rights

A stinging article commenting on public safety and religious freedom in French Canada made the government sit up and take notice about unfair verdicts when it comes to matters of practicing faith. The article, which featured in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s established national newspaper, addressed a Quebec court’s decision on the right of a 14-year-old Sikh student to wear his kirpan (the ceremonial dagger of his faith) to his public school. The newspaper termed the court’s decision of barring the wearing of the dagger as “a grievous error.”

“When rights collide in Canada, as they often do, the courts are not free to simply choose the right they prefer. They need to examine the evidence to determine if the two rights can live together…” the editorial said. Since a free speech versus free trial dispute in British Columbia in 1994 “there has been no hierarchy of rights.”

In the case of the kirpan, the student and his school board had already reached a compromise that the 10 centimeter ceremonial knife, with a blunt end, would be triply secured, concealed under clothing, carried in a wooden sheath and encased in a cloth sewn shut, and stitched to the carrying strap. The court, however seemed to endorse a narrow view of religious freedom, reflecting a too frequent intolerance related to immigrant integration.

The above cases illustrate that human rights need to be honoured at every basic level of existence irrespective of religion, race, and creed. There has to be that optimal integration of rights and laws which allows people to be what they are.

2005 Commonwealth People’s Forum

The 2005 Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF) will be held at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta, Malta, from 21-25 November. As the major Commonwealth civil society event, the Commonwealth People’s Forum brings together a cross section of civil society organisations (CSOs) to dialogue with government representatives at the time of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and to feed the ideas, issues and concerns of the people of the Commonwealth into the CHOGM process. The CPF also provides opportunities for civil society to interact with business and the private sector.

The theme for the 2005 Commonwealth People’s Forum is Networking Commonwealth People.

Important dates to remember:

May 24 Civil society consultation in Marlborough House, London, UK
June 30 Deadline for exhibitors and meeting organisers to confirm participation and their requirements.
July 30

- CF confirms acceptance of meeting proposal to meeting organisers.
- Recommended deadline for confirmation of ccommodation

NB: CPF participants should liaise with hotels directly
August 31 Deadline for organisation profiles for inclusion in Guidebook.
October 14

- Exhibitor manual sent to exhibitors
- Meeting organisers given room assignments
- CPF Guidebook sent to participant

November 18,19 Set up day for exhibitors
November 21-25

- Commonwealth People’s Forum
CPF Exhibition

November 21-24 CSO Meetings
November 22 Children’s Day
November 25 Gozo Day
November 27 Dismantle exhibitions



CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2005

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Print: Anshu Tejpal, Electronic:
Jyoti Bhargava, CHRI; Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

Copyright Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.