David Langtry speaks at U.K. Foreign Office seminar on continuing importance of national human rights institutions

Speaking notes for

David Langtry

Acting Chief Commissioner

of the

Canadian Human Rights Commission


Thursday March 5, 2015

London, U.K.

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen. 

Thank you for that kind introduction.

And thank you to the Equality and Human Rights Commission for inviting me to speak today.

It is both an honour and a pleasure.

I have three messages to share with you today. Think of it as a three-course meal, with dessert!

First message: human rights laws alone do not stop discrimination. Words on paper are not enough. To take root and survive in any society, values such as equality of opportunity require the support of institutions tasked with their promotion and protection.

Second message: and this follows from my first point, National Human Rights Institutions are the missing link between a state’s commitments to upholding human rights, and the real-life experience of citizens. 

Third, (and this is important for modern democracies wishing to promote human rights, a mission we share with the U.K. on the international stage): vibrant National Human Rights Institutions provide governments with credibility in their dealings with other nations.

That may sound like a heavy meal, but do not despair!

Because after all that – for dessert! - I will serve up a presentation on how National Human Rights Institutions monitor and grade each other’s performance, in accordance with a UN-recognized framework known as the Paris Principles.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. That is the core principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, in the aftermath of war.

It is worth repeating those words. In one form or another, western civilization has been fighting for them, often against enormous odds, for many centuries.  Much blood has been spilled in their name.

But it’s only in the latter part of the 20th Century that values like these have really flourished.

This didn’t happen by accident. 

It took a lot of work. 

Since the Universal Declaration, the international community has worked to define the human rights obligations of states.

Most states have, in turn, passed laws to enshrine these obligations. And, in the majority of cases, states have established National Human Rights Institutions to administer human rights laws.

Such was the genesis of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. 

Our Commission has a mandate to foster understanding of the Canadian Human Rights Act and the obligations and responsibilities of individuals, employers, and providers of services in the federal jurisdiction.

We also receive and investigate complaints when actions or policies based on discrimination cause harm. Where warranted, we refer complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for adjudication. In this quasi-judicial process, our lawyers intervene on behalf of the public interest, to help clarify the law and ensure access to human rights justice for the most vulnerable.

I am proud to have been called on to promote and protect human rights in Canada. I am also proud to have had the privilege of working with leaders in like-minded states to encourage the development of strong, independent and effective National Human Rights Institutions around the world.

Why do we work together toward this end? Each of these nations is aware – and conscious of the lessons from our own experience – that persistent, concerted effort is required to give effect to the aspirational values expressed in human rights laws. 

It takes hard work to transform these values into day-to-day realities. 

I am always surprised when I hear someone assert that the work of promoting and protecting these values has finished. 

Even in countries as “enlightened” as ours, I believe, our rights can easily lose meaning should we cease to stand up for them.  

Words on paper are not enough.

In Canada, we have plenty of words on paper. The Canadian Human Rights Act, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and provincial and territorial human rights codes work together to protect basic freedoms as well as freedom from discrimination.

What gives our laws their strength is not the beauty of their prose (or absence thereof!), but the vigour and resilience of the institutions created to administer them.

Yet, even so, in Canada many people struggle against persistent conditions of disadvantage. Many continue to experience discrimination, with damaging impact on quality of life. 

One of the most pressing human rights issues facing Canada is the reality of life for many Aboriginal people. 

Several hundred thousand Aboriginal people live on reserves, where most matters of daily life and social governance are determined by a piece of 19th Century legislation known as the Indian Act.  

The Indian Act is perhaps the last remaining legislation in a modern democracy that governs people based on race. It is a legacy of colonialism that has remained relatively unchanged for nearly 140 years.  

The Indian Act has set a context of social and economic exclusion that has resulted in disproportionate hardship and generally lower levels of well-being for Aboriginal peoples. 

Many reserves lack adequate housing, safe drinking water, access to quality education, and other basic services most people in Canada take for granted. 

Aboriginal people and their families continue to struggle with the devastating impacts of years of neglect and abuse: poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and violent crime. 

Clearly, these realities run contrary to Canadian values.

Values of equality, dignity and respect.

Values enshrined in our laws. 

Values - we like to think - engrained in our national identity. 

In Canada then, the work of promoting and protecting human rights is far from over.  As “enlightened” as our society may be, there’s clearly a lot of work to do.

It’s the job of National Human Rights Institutions to keep the narrative of human rights alive, and prompt governments to take action when words are not transformed into reality.

Removing barriers to opportunity, erasing the legacy of disadvantage, these are all objectives that we sometimes summarize under the rubric of social inclusion.

Social inclusion isn’t just morally right. Social inclusion is in our own self-interest.

Human capital is our most valuable resource.

It’s no accident that inclusive societies have lower levels of crime, and higher GDP per capita. 

Inclusive societies are simply better places to live. 

It’s common sense not to waste human potential on account of prejudice, intolerance, ideological or racial hatred.

As our Prime Minister has said, social inclusion is our job.

It’s everyone’s job. And it’s unfinished business. 

So I have argued that human rights laws need institutions to administer them, just as criminal codes depend on police and the courts.

My second point is really just a further nuance:

National Human Rights Institutions – and henceforward I am going to call them by their acronym, NHRIs –  are the missing link between a state’s commitments to upholding aspirational values and real life on the ground.  They act as a bridge between individuals and the state.

Let me give you some specific examples from the Canadian experience.

The laws are there, the institutions that administer them are there, but it’s really individuals empowered to exercise their rights whom we have to thank for helping to shape a more equal society.

Individuals using the law as an instrument for change have made an enormous contribution to social inclusion. 

Complaints brought to the Commission by individuals have resulted in tangible improvements for millions who might otherwise have suffered from exclusion, either in employment or when receiving services.

It was a human rights complaint from an individual with hearing impairment that resulted in mandatory closed captioning on Canadian television.

Similarly, banks now design automatic teller machines for people who use wheel chairs or have visual impairments. 

Nobody would question the appropriateness of this today, but this change originated in a human rights complaint.

Today the notion of accessibility is an almost universally accepted design concept in the construction of public buildings. 

Yet as a society we continue to overlook – perhaps unconsciously – the needs of people with disabilities.

A case in point: on Election Day a few years back, a set of icy stairs blocked access to the ballot box for a man with impaired mobility. As a result of his complaint, Elections Canada has committed to ensuring that all polling stations are now fully accessible. 

You would have thought they did not need to be told. But they did.

These and other changes have vastly improved the lives of millions of people.

We are indebted to the individuals who came to us with their complaints.

Who challenged us to find ways to end discriminatory practices. 

Who challenged us to ensure that they could enjoy equality of opportunity, as promised in law.

It takes many actors and influencers to sustain and nourish a flourishing human rights culture in any society.

NHRIs empower other actors and influencers to drive social change.

And now for the third course!

NHRIs demonstrate a state’s commitment to human rights and give that state credibility when it endeavors to advance human rights around the world.

By working within the government system but remaining autonomous from it, NHRIs lend credibility and legitimacy to governments seeking to promote the values of equality and human dignity beyond their borders.

We provide important checks and balances on the actions of the state, as well as private actors.

Earlier I mentioned that the international community has worked to define the obligations of states. But they have also defined the operational framework for National Human Rights Institutions. This framework is known as the Paris Principles.

I will provide a much more fulsome explanation of these principles in the second part of my presentation, but here are the highlights.

The Paris Principles establish guidelines for an institution’s independence, mandate and funding. And they ensure a transparent and inclusive appointment process.

Today there are NHRIs in at least 130 countries in the world.

Through a peer review system run by the International Coordinating Committee, the NHRIs monitor and grade each other’s conduct against the Paris Principles. 

The committee, which we call the ICC, is a kind of a gatekeeper for the system.  I am proud to serve as the chair of its sub-committee on accreditation.

NHRIs that fully comply with the Paris Principles are granted “A” status. 

Other than the badge of credibility, “A” status gives them standing at the United Nations.

Currently, 108 NHRIs have sought accreditation and of those 72 have “A” status. 

The UK, Northern Ireland and Scotland commissions are among them, and so is Canada.

I will speak more on the accreditation process in a moment.

Internationally, a key function of NHRIs is capacity-building.  This is most often achieved through the sharing of best practices, though in some instances more fulsome assistance is provided.

Some NHRIs have formed networks to assist in capacity-building. 

For example, the Commonwealth Forum of NHRIs. 

The Canadian Human Rights Commission is a past Chair of this organization.

The Commonwealth Forum was created, in part, to support fellow NHRIs, and to increase linkages among individual NHRIs, regional organizations, the UN and civil society.

Almost every Commonwealth member state has established an NHRI. Because of the wide variance in resources and compliance with Paris Principles within the Commonwealth, established NHRIs – the UK and Canada among them – have taken a leadership role to build understanding and capacity.

During Canada’s tenure as Chair of the Commonwealth Forum, we saw a fundamental transformation in the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity rights.  

Some members originally refused to see these issues as anything other than criminal matters.  They have since come to accept them as fundamental human rights issues.

This transformation was achieved through the efforts of various NHRIs, most notably the human rights commissions of Australia and South Africa.

Now I know everyone is thinking about the dessert course, so I will wrap up this part of my presentation with the following thought.

There’s a childhood illness that most of us believed modern medicine had eradicated from North America. 

We have an effective vaccine and thought we had an effective regime of mandatory vaccination.

I’m talking about measles. What happened? We became complacent. We let false, unscientific ideas of harm from the vaccine circulate without vigorous rebuttal or challenge. 

Indeed, in some cases those responsible for enforcing vaccination appear to have retreated into inaction. 

In Ottawa, for example, public health officials inexplicably decided not to enforce mandatory school suspensions for hundreds of unvaccinated children.

The result of all this: an outbreak in Disneyland has spread across the U.S. and into Canada, putting the health of North American children at risk.

By analogy, our hard won rights depend on effective regimes of protection and promotion. Rights may be inalienable in theory, but in practice they can be rolled back. 

As I argued earlier, words are not enough. Laws alone cannot prevent discrimination.

We are living through rapid technological change, global political and economic turmoil, and threats to personal and national security.

In this context, promotion and protection of human rights remain as important as ever. And the strength and autonomy of NHRIs are fundamental to that effort.

So we must continue to support and fund our National Human Rights Institutions.

For even in countries where human rights are broadly speaking “alive and well,” they can never be taken for granted.

Thank you for your attention.

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