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December 10 Human Rights Day

December 2, 1998

Every year, December 10 marks the United Nation’s Human Rights Day.

The establishment of human rights in our laws is one of the most distinctive achievements and one of the great pieces of unfinished business of this century. This is important!

For some of us, human rights laws are distant symbols.

For others, all over the world, they are critical to how we live, and sometimes whether we live or die.

As the Universal Declaration says, human rights are:

  • “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”
  • “integral to the promotion of peace and security, economic prosperity and social equity”

Eleanor Roosevelt was the first “chairman” of the UN Commission on Human Rights, founded in 1946. She set out the challenge for human rights that is as meaningful today as it was then (except she forgot to use “women and men”):

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?

In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in, the school or college he attends, the factory, farm or office where he works.

Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.

Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.

Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

We have human rights laws at many levels.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not an international treaty, but a number of legally binding treaties have flowed from it (most of which have some form of reporting and review built in), including:

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (along with the Universal Declaration, these two covenants form the International Bill of Rights) | 1966
  • International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination | 1965
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child | 1989
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – CEDAW | 1979

The good news is that CEDAW is a convention about women’s equality. The bad news is that CEDAW is not adequate. It was put together quickly for International Women’s Year in 1979. A lot has happened since then to change our understanding of the nature of discrimination – and what we have to do to change “entrenched” patterns of subordination.

Human rights in law are necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve women’s rights

When she was appointed as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997, Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, said:

... that body of substantive international human rights law is there because domestic protection of vulnerable individuals or groups is either absent or insufficient.

Today, news reaches us faster than ever and much of it concerns human rights violations. I chose the title “Realizing Human Rights” to put the emphasis on the problem of confronting the international community, and for which I now bear some responsibility, of making human rights protection work ...

My responsibility as UN High Commissioner is to adopt and to foster a rights-based approach across the whole spectrum of “civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights,” to promote and protect the realization of the right to development and specifically to include women’s rights as human rights, as we were reminded by the Beijing Conference ...

The international system’s achievements to date in implementing human rights standards cry out for fresh approaches ... I have told my colleagues that I do not see this [50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration] as an occasion for celebration. Count up the results of 50 years of human rights mechanisms, 30 years of multi-million dollar development programs and endless high-level rhetoric, and the global impact is quite underwhelming ...

We still have widespread discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religious belief and sexual orientation, and there is still genocide – twice in this decade alone.

There are 48 countries with more than one-fifth of the population living in what we have grown used to calling “absolute poverty.”

This is a failure of implementation on a scale which shames us all. So much effort, money and hopes have produced such modest results. It is no longer enough to hide behind the impact of the cold war and other factors limiting international action in the past. It’s time instead for lessons-learned exercise ...

One lesson we need to learn, and reflect in our approach, is that the essence of rights is that they are empowering. Poverty itself is a violation of numerous basic human rights.

Furthermore, the increased recognition of the feminization of poverty makes it vital to link into the international protection of human rights the energies and approaches of the thousands of international and national networks of women’s groups.

Canadian Louise Arbour was appointed High Commissioner in July 2004.

Women in Canada are leaders in improving women’s rights through CEDAW

Women in Canada are activists for the full implementation of international human rights in Canada and elsewhere.

Shelagh Day says that CEDAW can be used by us, the women/girls of Canada in four ways:

  1. As a political advocacy tool. Using CEDAW to persuade federal and provincial/territorial governments to take steps that advance the equality of women, and to stop them from taking steps that slow down or stop that advancement.
  2. CEDAW is an instrument for measuring Canada's performance on advancing the equality of women. Canada signed CEDAW and has to file reports on how Canada complied to CEDAW. This reporting creates a political opportunity for Cdn women to examine, comment on and criticize Canada’s performance – both its strengths and weaknesses.
  3. CEDAW is an aid to interpreting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee of equality.
  4. CEDAW will be a legal forum for the appeal of any women’s case that has not been won in Canadian. courts, once The Optional Protocol to CEDAW has been drafted and adopted, but countries have to sign on. Canada has to agree to be bound by this complaint mechanism. It will mean that women who make complaints of sex discrimination under Canadian law and lose, can take their complaints into the international arena by complaining to CEDAW’s committee. These women can say that their rights under the Convention have been violated.

The Centre for Feminist Research at York University published the First CEDAW Impact Study in 2000. It was undertaken by the International Women’s Rights Project and its project director, Marilou McPhedran. See Resources below for information on obtaining a copy.

In 1999, the UN General Assembly adopted 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The international community has recognized that efforts to confront gender-based violence are central to human security and development remain strong. Women’s groups have been commemorating 25 November as a day to end violence against women for many years. Women and men in over 100 countries now hold public events and campaigns that begin on 25 November and culminate on Human Rights Day, 10 December. It is notable how the actions and networks to end violence against women have joined forces across nations, ethnicities, race, class, caste and other diversities. Violence against women is universal and the struggle to put an end to it involves each and every one of us.

In the past, we have seen the threat to human and global security that intensifies to the breaking point when we ignore abuses to women's human rights. We failed to act meaningfully when Afghan girls were prohibited from going to school, when Afghan women doctors and teachers were prohibited from going to work, when women were beaten for what they wore. What happened to women in Afghanistan was not just a women's issue, an issue of tradition or culture, or a problem that needed to be dealt with in the private sphere. On the contrary, what happened in Afghanistan demonstrated that the way in which a country or community treats women and protects and promotes their human rights, is one of the best early warning indicators of its respect for international norms and standards.

We have achieved a great deal internationally and nationally in our advocacy and activism to end gender-based violence. And 25 November is the appropriate time to celebrate those achievements.

  • We have a UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, agreed to in 1993.
  • We have a UN Special Rapporteur on the Issue of Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences appointed in 1994.
  • We have a Trust Fund to End Violence against Women established by the General Assembly in UNIFEM in 1996.
  • We have achieved the recognition of rape as a war crime against humanity in 1998.
  • And, in 2000, we had a historic session on Women and Peace and Security in the Security Council which produced the landmark SC Resolution 1325 and heightened interest in understanding the impact of war and armed conflict on women and the roles of women in peace-building.
  • Most importantly, at the national level, laws that recognize domestic violence and rape as crimes against women are being passed and implemented in an increasing number of countries. We have accomplished so much, and yet the scourge of violence in general, and violence against women in particular, seems to be increasing.

We need to learn from the small victories and achievements in addressing gender-based violence that can be scaled up to become norms, standards and public policies.

Three lessons that UNIFEM has learned from the ways in which women are organizing to address violence and build long-lasting peace:

  1. Women are developing innovative ways to challenge the use of tradition as a rationale for continued violence. Projects from UNIFEM’s Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence against Women, for instance, demonstrate how women's groups work with religious leaders, families and communities to change attitudes and practices towards female genital mutilation and so-called honour killings. Family by family, community by community, these projects are building respect for the lives of women and girls and an understanding that gender-based violations are not integral to any tradition or culture.
  2. Women are investing in long-term public education and awareness campaigns to reach people's minds and hearts. The UN Inter-Agency regional campaigns to end gender-based violence that UNIFEM coordinated in 1998 and 1999 developed powerful messages that resonated with policy makers and the public. The slogan “A Life Free of Violence: It’s Our Right” was used for many of these campaigns. This slogan is equally relevant in the aftermath of September 11 to stimulate broader coalitions for peace and social justice. Over the past year, UNIFEM has convened groups in every region to learn techniques for strengthening advocacy strategies to end gender-based violence. These groups have affirmed that without changing people’s attitudes and behaviour in the most profound ways, progress on eliminating violence will be limited.
  3. Women are linking the need for social and economic rights to notions of human security. Conflicts arising from the growing gaps between rich and poor must be addressed. The terror of poverty, hunger, HIV/AIDS, and inequality are the seeds that spawn social fragmentation and violence. UNIFEM is supporting women to build economic literacy, to understand economic policy-making, to analyze national budget processes from a gender perspective. These are the kinds of long-term efforts that will result in broad-based policy dialogue and the creation of sustainable solutions to social fragmentation and problems without borders.

The events of the past several months have demonstrated, as powerfully as ever before, the importance of coalitions to end violence, to value human rights, and to speak out forcefully against injustice. No single country, agency or sector of society – no matter how powerful – can ensure human security and confront massive abuses to human rights on their own. In an era of globalization, people, money and ideas move across national borders in the blink of an eye. In an era of globalization, the common values and ethics that we develop to guide our interactions with each other – whether as states, organizations, or individuals - are the best foundations to build a global dialogue on peace and craft a vision for a more secure human future.

more to consider

“In small places, close to home,” that’s where Eleanor Roosevelt said human rights need to happen. It is most certainly not the only place, but it is the place where we can all make a contribution. It is not necessary to be a heroine, although some will choose to, or be forced by circumstance to play this role.

  • It means thinking about how we treat other people, particularly those who are not part of the majority background or colour or personal choice.
  • It means being sensitive to what others say about themselves, how they wish to be treated (the same treatment we expect).
  • It means, if we are fortunate enough to be in this position, giving some portion of our volunteer time or charitable dollars to projects or organizations dedicated to the realization of human rights, women’s rights at home and elsewhere in the world.
  • It means telling our elected politicians and our governments and our corporations what standards we expect them to meet and telling them when they have met those expectations and when they have failed.

There are lots of powerful interests pushing against human rights and women’s rights. If the foundation we build is strong, the house we build has a much better chance of surviving all the huffing and puffing.

Mary Robinson says that human rights are empowering, which could be understood to mean that they enable women to do what they are otherwise prevented from doing. Like earning an adequate and fair wage, living without fear of physical violence, having a political voice as individuals and in groups.

It is precisely because human rights are empowering that they are unrealized in very real and meaningful ways. Realizing human rights would mean change. It would mean that those who have power and money and other resources would have to share them now and in the future. Human rights – women’s rights – have not come and will not come easily.

This is not just the case in poor dictatorships a long way from Canada. This is the case in Canada, in other wealthy nations too. To say this does not take away from what has been achieved – it forces us to be honest about the future.

An editorial in the National Post on November 16, 1998, pointed out its objection to certain human rights – the social economic and cultural ones. Perhaps political and civil rights are OK, in the eyes of the National Post, because journalists and newspapers need them. Here’s an excerpt:

Like other social, economic and cultural rights – as opposed to political rights such as free speech – the right to an adequate living standard is a claim upon every other citizen to provide it. To grant it as a right, however, would be to place all other citizens in a condition of potential slavery.

Those who have as slaves to those who have not. A provocative image, one we could test in real life and see what the National Post thinks when the shoe is on the other foot. What would they think about social and economic and cultural rights when they need them? The fact that rights are empowering is the reason why we seek them and the reason why we meet so much resistance. As women, we need to be very realistic about what it will take to achieve change and get on with putting our power and our resources together.

resources for this story
  • First CEDAW Impact Study, by MARILOU McPHEDRAN et al, Centre for Feminist Research, ISBN 1-55014-397-2 | 2000
  • The office of the UN High Commissioner receives 400,000 complaints a year. It maintains a 24 hour fax hot line in Geneva, Switzerland, which can be reached by dialing 41-22-91-70092.
  • Women and the Equality Deficit: The Impact of Restructuring Canada's Social Programs, by SHELAGH DAY and GWEN BRODSKY, funded by Status of Women Canada’s Policy Research Fund. (Status of Women Canada can also provide copies of the 1983, 1988, 1990 and 1994 reports made by the Government of Canada to the Committee under CEDAW.) | March 1998

This feature was first published and updated on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


  • Seasonal Feature

  • April 1994: the night raid at Kingston’s Prison for Women

    by Sierra Bacquie

    There was supposed to be a new approach to the Correctional Service of Canada’s relationship to female offenders, who were promised responsible choices, respect, dignity, supportive environments, and shared responsibility. But on the night of April 26, eight women experienced humiliation, degradation, raw fear and trauma at the hands of an all-male emergency team. How did this happen? What has changed since?  read more