Madame Arbour Returns to Canada (Episode 20)

Former Osgoode Hall law professor and Supreme Court justice, Madame Louise Arbour, recently completed a four-year term as the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights.

She will take on the position of President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Crisis Group in July 2009, but before that she’s making a brief return to the Canadian human rights scene.

Earlier today I heard her speak at the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) convention on the National Day of Mourning, an annual event recognized by the Federal government since 1991 to remember workers who lost their lives or were injured on the job.

Madame Arbour is perhaps best known in constitutional circles for her dissent in Gosselin v. Quebec, which would have given social and economic rights to Canadians.

Despite the court’s decision to the contrary, Madame Arbour is still making the case for social and economic rights in the future of Canada.

She characterized a dichotomy between the West and the East, with the former claiming to champion liberty, the latter championing social and economic rights, and neither side really hearing each other in the process.

Her talk was premised on the Roosevelt’s fundemental freedoms that gave way to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically the freedom from fear and the freedom from want.  She related the former fear to legal abuses by Western governments in the so-called “war on terrorism.”  The second fear is increasingly relevant in our tough economic times, the true test of which will be our treatment of migrant workers.

The key to our true security lies in addressing social and economic problems by dealing with them as fundamental rights, and the sooner we can realize this the safer and more prosperous we will all be.

5 Comments on "Madame Arbour Returns to Canada (Episode 20)"

  1. I fundamentally disagree. Social and economic “rights” are not consistent with our constitutional regime, our history, and the basic concept of liberal democracy. A “right” is an injunction against state action, not an entitlement against our fellow taxpayer. The Gosselin decision was correctly decided and Arbour’s dissent was completely out to lunch.

    Putting aside the logistical problems of social and economic “rights”, judicial recognition of them would foreclose one of the central political debates in society–which is the role of the state in the economic life of the nation. Only elected representatives have the legitimacy to determine how much to tax, how much to spend, and what areas that spending should be directed towards. If we go the route of social and economic “rights” I would suggest that we forego the formality of elections, parliament, and government all together. What would be the point? A polity that allows for judicial enforcement of social and economic rights is no better than any de facto communist dictatorship.

    Hopefully Canada’s judiciary stays the course and remains true to a negative conception of what constitutes a “right”.

  2. I completely agree with the above. Nothing entitles anyone to a living. A living must be earned. Any notion that the state must provide people with a living is an extraordinarily dangerous policy that is in no way compatible with the freedoms we enjoy.

  3. Andrew Dobson also addressed this in Fairness and Futurity (1999) in the context of sustainable development,

    Contestable concepts are complex and normative, and they have two levels of “meaning.” The first level is unitary but vague: it can often be expressed in a short definition… Democracy, liberty, and social justice, for example, all have readily understood “first meanings.”
    …The interesting feature of contestable concepts comes in the second lvel of meaning. This is where the contest occurs: political argument over how the concept should be interpreted in practice. Is representative democracy sufficient, or should it be direct? Are positive freedoms necessary for liberty, or only negative ones? Is social justice about outcomes or only opportunity? Such questions reflect alternative conceptions of the concept: differing ways in which it can be understood. For common political concepts, the battle is neither over the first level of meaning nor indeed whether one accepts the normative goal. Almost everyone is in favour of democracy, liberty, and social justice; the debate is over alternative conceptions of what they mean, at the second level.

    In this context, Mme Arbour is also referring to sustainable development of our civilization. At this point definitions of sustainable development would be useful.

    Brundtland definition: development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

    Caring for the Earth definition: improving the quality of life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.

    We are not living within our ecosystem’s capacity or truly concerned about the needs of future generations. This approach is not only short-sighted and imprudent, but will eventually result in the erosion of the other political rights and liberty.

    Addressing poverty and social needs of the world is the best way to ensure our own continuity.

    American environmental lawyer, James Gustave Speth, said in Red Sky at Morning (2006),

    Many of us hoped that the post-Cold War period would bring a peace dividend of financial and political resources that could be applied to promoting environmental and development objectives. Instead, teh Unitied States and others have been enmeshed in a series fo military and peacekeeping engagements, now time, energy, and money. Shortly after I joined the United Nations Development Programme in 1993, we began to notice a disturbing trend – U.N. spending in peacekeeping and humanitarian emergencies was skyrocketing while resources for long-term development assistance focused on poverty and the environment were declining. I and others repeatedly spoke out against cuts in funding for our programs, pointing out that with so many fires starting we should not neglect fire prevention – but the pattern persisted.

  4. Omar – I have no issue with the notion that addressing poverty and environmental degradation are matters of the utmost important. The sole issue when we discuss “rights” is the appropriate venue for decision making.

  5. Okay, good to know. The point is that when UDHR was drafted it consisted of more than what we limit it to in Canada. They may not yet be constitutional rights domestically, but they are recognized rights internationally.
    When you say it’s incompatible with the history of our society, I say that it is not – no more than any of the rights we claim to champion today but failed to uphold in previous years.

    Former Premier Roy Romanow recently touched on this,

    Let’s consider poverty. It is one fundamental example of how social and economic policy must go hand in hand generally, but especially in these difficult times. Yet, since the global economy started tumbling, three critical reports linking poverty and our overall well-being have been released to scant attention by media and too many governments…

    If we want to improve the overall health of Canadians and reduce health costs, then one of the most effective and efficient places to start is by reducing poverty. An investment in a deliberate long-term commitment to poverty-reduction is key…

    In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty has boldly pledged to make poverty reduction a priority and to bring down a comprehensive plan this week. The fact that the premier has remained committed to this timeline even in this toughest of economic times is encouraging. I applaud him for staying the course and pledging to detail a plan of action to give hope to those living in poverty and to provide all of Ontario’s citizens with a more sustainable social and economic future.

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