December 10 is the date of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations 66 years ago. That important act was the result of many years of struggle against racism and colonialism, combined with the horrors of the Holocaust that were still fresh in the memory of humankind after the Second World War.
Today’s headlines remind us that the work of winning human rights is never over. From the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, to the rampant evidence of sexual harassment and violence against women, we are reeling with the knowledge that so much more needs to be done. There is welcome news at the same time – the efforts of the Canadian Olympic Committee to support gay and lesbian athletes are to be applauded, particularly in the aftermath of Sochi.
The fact is that our world was built on massive violations of human rights. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was matched in its brutality by the slave labour of indigenous people in the silver and gold mines of South America – millions died in the Pitosi mine alone. The first joint-stock corporation – the Dutch East Indies Company – included enslaving of indigenous people in its business model. That model provided an 18-per-cent average annual return on investment for two centuries.
Since the beginning of “globalization” the majority of humankind has struggled against racism and exploitation. The legacies of slavery and colonialism enshrined discrimination till long after the Second World War. A century ago women in Europe and North America were organizing for the right just to vote – it would be many decades before women’s equality found reflection in laws or practice. The Chinese Exclusion Act and Head Tax were a stain in our history, as were there turning away of ships bearing Sikhs or Jews in the 20th century. And we can trace a long and shameful legacy of Canada’s relations with First Nations peoples, still simmering as the Harper Conservatives manipulate omnibus budget bills to undermine native rights in relation to their land and water.
But the area of human rights that is less frequently acknowledged is workers’ rights. The Universal Declaration states that everyone has the right to decent incomes, equal pay for equal work, and the right to join a union. The ability of working people to use their collective efforts to raise the standard of living above poverty set the stage for Canada’s relative prosperity, even though that prosperity was never fully shared.
The labour movement became a key actor in the ongoing struggle against discrimination. The Toronto Labour Committee on Human Rights was formed in 1947 to challenge practices in restaurants, clubs, workplaces and accommodations, and partnered with black community activists to demand a change to Canada’s racist immigration policies. With the growth of income inequality and racialization of poverty, the right to decent jobs must clearly be on the agenda.
But the real leadership of work on human rights has always come from the communities most affected. In 1975 community activists helped form the Urban Alliance on Race Relations in response to the increasing frequency of hate-motivated violence against African and South Asian Canadians in Toronto’s streets, subways and shopping plazas. It was often difficult to speak the inconvenient truth about the reality of discrimination, but UARR has provided decades of leadership on education policies, police conduct and employment equity. The Black Action Defence Committee found itself constantly disparaged for its role in bringing racism to light, while others toiled with less notoriety but equal effect.
The fact is that the work for human rights needs to be taken up by each generation. Those who penned the Universal Declaration had seen mass suffering at a level we can hardly comprehend. They were part of a long journey of humankind towards a more just world.
We should all remember and strive to honour the first lines of the Declaration: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
Gary Pieters is President of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations. John Cartwright is President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council.
This article originally appeared in The Star. Reprinted with permission.