Individual rights come with collective responsibility

Opinion piece as published in the Ottawa Citizen

By Isha Khan and Marie-Claude Landry

As COVID-19 shows, individual rights come with collective responsibility
Today, International Human Rights Day, we owe it to ourselves to understand what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Canadian Human Rights Act tell us.

You’ve 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. As a business owner or a religious leader, you must follow all health orders, regardless of your views or the impact on your operations.

Is this discrimination? A violation of your human rights?

Some commentators claim that it is, cherry-picking clauses from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Canada’s 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 assertions 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 such as reconciliation, systemic racism and the global refugee crisis.

Let us explain.

Dec. 10 is International Human Rights Day, a celebration of the adoption on this day in 1948 of the Declaration. The most important human rights document ever drafted, the Declaration embraced — for the first time on the world stage — 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: a time of fear, hatred, racism and intolerance, exacerbated by ignorance and complacency.

The Declaration is based on the notions that we all share a fundamental humanity, that we all have fundamental rights, and that those rights must be protected for the good of society.

However, individual rights and freedoms can only flourish when we also protect the well-being of society as a whole. This is often misunderstood.

People opposed to COVID-19 restrictions have their favourites among the 30 articles of the Declaration. 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.

Article 29 also ensures these limits are not used to arbitrarily remove our rights. The language in Article 29 is balanced. It prohibits limitations on our rights from becoming a slippery slope into undemocratic or authoritarian rule — as many opponents of COVID-19 restrictions seem to fear.

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. Hate, violence, threats, racism and fear are among the results. 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.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Today, as we celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the foundational human rights document we hold dear, 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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