Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Flawed First Step

Human rights. What images do those two words bring to mind? One may be tempted to entertain images of universal justice, gender equality and the abolishment of poverty. In truth, human rights encompass the seedy worlds of dark sweatshops, race discrimination and wide earnings gaps between those two elements of society, men and women. These issues have, arguably, been the driving factor behind innumerable international conflicts, such as the genocide in Rwanda and the war in Darfur. Besides these stand-out conflicts, human rights have also been at the heart of many high-profile scandals and issues, such as Nike employing child labour and China’s reluctance to end it’s support and continued use of sweatshops. Women and children around the world continue to face issues such as human trafficking and prostitution, while journalists and bloggers in China are repressed and silenced. Human rights violations have been, and will continue to be a big issue in the twenty-first century, and society has devised various different ways to deal with the problem. Non-governmental organizations – NGOs – such as Amnesty International and Oxfam International work to find lasting solutions to poverty and injustice by purchasing and funding emergency food and medicine, and by collecting used clothing and shoes. Governments, too, have a responsibility to protect their denizens from human rights violations, such as gender and race discrimination. In order to enable and foster continued international support for human rights, intergovernmental agencies such as the United Nations have created commissions and drafted documents encouraging countries to oppose those who violate human rights, and to take steps to protect their citizens from said violations. One of these documents is the International Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Although this document was created in good faith, there have been situations in which this document has failed to yield the expected results. For example, the Universal Declaration (from here on in referred to be referred to as the UDHR) states in Article 5 that “No one shall be subject to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”, yet Amnesty International reported in 2000 that torture is widely used in more than 125 countries. The UDHR has failed to live up to it’s expectations for two main reasons. Firstly, the Declaration is just that; a declaration. It is nothing close to an internationally binding agreement or treaty that could be legally enforced, signatory states are still free to commit human rights violations without too much fear of economic sanctions or reprisals. Secondly, the UDHR fails to specifically set targets that must be met in order to protect human rights – it only outlines idealistic goals. The UDHR, though a noble first step towards human rights protection, was insufficient, and only by changing existing attitudes, creating local awareness and setting realistic goals can countries such as Canada hope to effectively support and promote human rights.

Studies have shown that powerful countries – like the United States – are rarely willing to employ sanctions against less-powerful countries who commit human rights violations. Although this might seem to be but a trivial problem – after all, developed nations don’t commit nearly as many human rights violations as their third-world counterparts – it is not, when we realize that the West holds much of the power that can be used to keep awry governments in line. The United States, with it’s own shady human rights record, is perhaps the world’s great hope for enforcing human rights. Wealthy nations such as Britain, the United States and Canada should actively promote human rights in other countries who may find violating said rights natural, or even necessary in the context of the economy. In fact, some experts on the issue feel that “without powerful countries taking a strong interest in the effectiveness of international human rights regimes, there is little cost for parties with a poor human rights record to ratify the treaty (the UDHR) as a symbolic gesture of good will, instead maintaining its poor record in actually reality. From this we see that countries with power and influence do have the capacity to change how human rights are approached on a global scale. However, many nations such as the United States, though signers of the UDHR, are apathetic when it comes to actually taking action. “Indeed, for the most part, countries take relatively little interest in the extent of human rights violations in other countries, unless one of their own citizens are affected.” This attitude of “only extending a hand when I have something to gain” needs to be fixed. This is, truly, the first and foremost reason why the UDHR has failed to create the drastic changes in human rights protection that its drafters envisioned. Canada might be considered somewhat of an exception to this trend of apathetic, self-serving modern countries. As can be seen from the ongoing mission in Haiti to foster education, health and development, Canada does in fact have the right attitude – that, as a developed Western nation, the government should take efforts to aid and help less-developed nations support human rights inside their countries. Only by adopting this attitude can we hope to improve the status of human rights all around the world.

Another serious flaw of the UDHR is its inability to take into account local and cultural factors that may have an effect on the human rights situation in a particular locale or geographic area. Such factors may come in the form of local traditions, economic necessities and religious backgrounds. For example, the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam is a declaration that was adopted by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, an Islamic international organization whose members include Iran, Afghanistan, Jordan and Palestine. It is widely held that this declaration arose as a direct response to the predominantly Westernized UDHR. The UDHR, then, was criticized for not taking into account the special requirements and regulations of Islamic Shari’a law. As a result, this specialized document was created – not out of spite or needless want, but out of a necessity to create something that could be fitted specifically to the multitude of Islamic states who still wanted to recognize human rights in their own way. In countries such as El Salvador and Bangladesh, teams or workers labouring in unregulated factories work long hours with few breaks and little pay. Situations such as these do not arise most often out of governments’ unwillingness to ratify the UDHR, but rather they arise from embedded cultural, social and economic practices that cannot so easily be changed to fit into the mould of human rights. Canada is a good example of this: Canada is a country of immigrants, and is becoming more culturally diverse every year. The Canadian government, as is its duty, has taken many steps to accommodate thus, such as when it enacted the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977. It is clear that the UDHR has and will continue to have problems reconciling itself with various different cultural, religious and economic communities around the world; if the UDHR were to be modified, grassroots initiatives tied linked in purpose to those outlined in the UDHR would be a good way to approach the problem. Grassroots organizations “are [...] central to efforts to promote human rights because they work at the local level.” Two examples of successful grassroots organizations tied to international human rights include the Ixcan Association for Human Rights, and the Haitian Women in Solidarity organization. These groups working at the local level would hopefully be able to, perhaps in a step-by-step process, mold and shape local traditions into shapes that protect human rights. These efforts would of course need to be generally in line with the ideals of the UDHR, and could perhaps be overseen by international human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

Lastly, the UDHR has failed in achieving its goals because it has simply set the bar too high. In the twenty-first century, the volumes of sweat, amounst of time and levels of international cooperation needed to fulfill the idealistic goals set out in the thirty articles of the UDHR simply do not exist. More importantly however, many countries now still do not take the reasons for human rights seriously enough to make the UDHR work. Truly, if “the suggested reasons for human rights are to go deep enough, then the rights they require, at least some of these rights, will be unrealistically demanding,” The reasons behind the existence of human rights are both vast and noble in nature, but the requirements that they produce in reality are simply too much for the world as it is today. Canada, once again sets the bar for high human rights standards – Canada resides in that small clutch of nations that has extended full rights to same-sex partners, and Canada’s peace-keeping activities are well-known around the globe. Once again, Canada must continue to champion human rights that other countries are simply not ready for. Indeed, “it seems unlikely that the best best reasons for human rights can be given full expression in any feasible set of human rights, at least in our present world.” Only when the UN sets lower standards can the rest of the global community bring these goals to fruition.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights came at a timely moment in history; after the defeat of Nazi Germany. At that point in history, emotions ran high and humanity found the need to draft a document stating its intentions to never again let those atrocities of war be committed again. In his haste, man failed to recognize the many problems with his new found document – the failure to take into account cultural and religious differences of the world’s people, the unwillingness of world powers to actively support those golden ideals, and final, bitter truth; that the world is simply not ready for such sweeping changes to human rights. In the coming years, perhaps in the next few decades or centuries, maybe the global community will take the necessary steps to amend the UDHR, and once again work towards fostering global human rights cooperation.


There you have it, my end-of-the-year ISU for CLN 4U0.



Thursday, July 2, 2009

List Week at the Star

Back from a long absence, I have but one thing to say; I have a problem with councillors making a big deal out of giving back their annual cost-of-living pay increase. As far as I can deduce, Toronto city councillors, like many other municipal job-holders, are entitled to two types of pay raise each year - regular pay raises due to promotions, good performance, accumulated time working, etc., and their annual cost-of-living increase, which I presume works to cover inflation and the naturally rising cost of living. Now, some Toronto city councillors have made some petition apparently, and they're trying to get all the other city councillors to sign this petition and give back their cost-of-living pay increase. Now I have several problems with this idea. Firstly, the media (Toronto Star?) has gone and put the faces of all these counsellors who haven't signed the petition on their front page with the headline "Why won't they give their pay back?" (or something to that effect, I've misplaced the article.) What is this but a blatant attempt to stir up discontent among people at their respective councillors? Secondly, if it weren't for the fact that these hard-working members of society are councillors, they would not have all this public hype surrounding them concerning giving back an increase that is actually, not really a raise - it is, after all, a cost-of-living increase. Thirdly is the fact that many of these unduly famous councillors have already given back their yearly pay raise a few months ago. My last issue with this is the fact that there are a handful of councillors who have taken that "initiative" to stir up this pot, and who have taken that effort to alienate themselves from the rest of city council by saying "Hey look at us, we're making this petition and we're signing it to make us look good and the rest of the councillors look like greedy, ungrateful bastards hoarding city cash in the face of an economic crisis".

Well shame on them! Not those on the front page of the Star, I mean those doing the "political grandstanding", or so it's called. Anyways, I sure wouldn't want to be one of those people, and if I knew that coming into a job with such great responsability would entail harassment from my coworkers all over a little pay raise, I certainly would not take that job.



Saturday, May 23, 2009


I recently read an article somewhere about intrinsic value. The concept of something being intrinsically good has baffled people for ages, and even now people disagree - what is it about something that makes it good in and of itself?

Suppose that someone were to ask you whether it is good to help others in time of need. Unless you suspected some sort of trick, you would answer, “Yes, of course.” If this person were to go on to ask you why acting in this way is good, you might say that it is good to help others in time of need simply because it is good that their needs be satisfied. If you were then asked why it is good that people's needs be satisfied, you might be puzzled. You might be inclined to say, “It just is.” Or you might accept the legitimacy of the question and say that it is good that people's needs be satisfied because this brings them pleasure. But then, of course, your interlocutor could ask once again, “What's good about that?” Perhaps at this point you would answer, “It just is good that people be pleased,” so as to put an end to this line of questioning. Or perhaps you would again seek to explain the fact that it is good that people be pleased in terms of something else that you take to be good.

Let us look at the case of psychedelic drugs, like marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, whatever - these drugs supposedly give you a high that can bring you to a sort of supra-rational state; is this good? I say yeah, sure. Why not? People in pain take drugs - it's as simple as that. Those in physical pain take tylenol, and those in emotional pain take tylenol. Why not let people smoke? say it's all just bureaucracy and red tape, and some sort of age-old racial stigmas, too, that is keeping people from havin' a toke every so often.

But that's not my point, the point here is really kind of stupid; it's just that it's real tough to say you know, "GUYS COCAINE IS BAD, DON'T DO IT!" What do you judge things by, their merit, the pleasure it induces or the pain it will help you forget? I don't know, really!



Friday, May 8, 2009

Swine Flew!


We are all pretty scared I'd say of this new part-avian-part-swine-part-human super-influenza that has taken the world by storm. I'm pretty scared myself, you know? There are those doomsayer scientists who predict if this becomes a full-blown pandemic, up to two billion people (one-third of the world's population) could be infected! That's pretty scary honestly. The good news is that here in Canada, most of the confirmed cases have experienced mild symptoms, and the virus itself doesn't seem to be spreading too fast. What I find scary is the similarity some of those crisis room world maps have to this game called Pandemic 2. In it, you create a fictional disease and strive to take over the world. You might in fact name that disease Influenza H1N1a, and try to kill off the world's population before scientists can find a vaccine against you! 



Monday, April 20, 2009


I recently had my cell phone plan changed to My5. I've never had such a plan before but it seems pretty good, as I mostly call only a small group of people. I also have something like seven hundred shared minutes with my sister and father, and a whole lot of text messages. In these "tough economic times", it seems many people are trying to save money on just about anything. However those whom i'm in immediate contact with don't seem to be taking this economic downturn too hard at all. In fact, I haven't seen any real actions taken on those peoples' parts to reflect a change of attitude with regard to saving money, cutting back on non-essentials etc. This could mean several things, or it could just mean I've been eating out too much -_-.

But alas, good news! From now until May 3, you can get a free small coffee at McDonalds any time until 10:30 in the morning! You can take a look at the *official* facebook event here. What is that like, 23 coffees or something? EXPLOIT DAT SHIT YE



Monday, April 6, 2009

Energy Savings, Maybe?

Today, I thought up of a weird idea that may one day revolutionize society. Most people in the Western world wake up early, are in the office by nine, work till noon, take a lunch break, go back to work and are back home by five or six. Why not shift our work hours ahead, and save a lot of energy in the process? For most families, the parents are at their workplace for most of the daylight hours, as are their children (if they attend school). During this nine-to-five period of time, energy usage in the home - due to lights, appliances, heating, whatever - drops drastically, I would guess, as there is simply no one at home to use energy. Instead, energy consumption comes from the energy used at the workplace - keeping all those lights on, running those copying machines, and so on and so forth. Then when parents and children return home for the evening, lights and appliances are once again switched on. In essence, with our current state of affairs, we are using electricity both at home and at the workplace, from the start of our day to the end.

But imagine if we shifted our nine to five workday (and similar "school day") five hours ahead. Work and school would start sometime around three or four o clock, instead of the nine as it is now. What would the advantages of such a situation be? Well, people usually keep the lights on at home only during the evening and night hours, when there isn't much sunlight. The same isn't true, however, of most people's workplaces. Lights have to be on work, regardless of whether the sun is out. So, by moving work later into the night and allowing people to do their family, leisure and recreational activities in the morning and early afternoon hours, we could potentially save a lot of energy! People spending time at home in the morning rather than at night wouldn't switch any lights on, but if they were doing the same at night as they are now, they probably would have the lights on (or at least some).

I probably haven't described this very clearly but if you see what I'm trying to get it, a shift of the workday could save lots of energy consumed by lights.

More later.