Tackling Inequality – a Human Rights Day Reflection

Part of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion blog post series

Every year on December 10th, we observe Human Rights Day – the day when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The theme of reflection for this year, 2021, is equality as found in Article One of the UDHR: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Sadly, inequality robs many of those rights.

Inequality is clear however, everywhere around the world. One example was tragically evident just days ago, when dozens of people including a young girl drowned in the English Channel and two survivors are in an ICU. Most of the victims of this tragedy are reported to be of Kurdish background, one of the most vulnerable populations. Also of Kurdish background was Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed ashore from the Mediterranean in the refugee crisis of 2015. The photo of the little boy lying on the beach, facing down with his small hands stretched out, was so shocking to the conscience of many that it became one of the debated issues during the 2015 Canadian Federal Election. There are no photos or videos of those whose small inflatable dingy sank in the English Channel, but it is not difficult to imagine the same helplessness and desperation as experienced by the close to 1,400 people, just like Alan Kurdi, who perished in their pursuit for a better life in Europe. Inequality robbed them of their very lives.

A second life-or-death inequality is the access to the COVID-19 vaccine. While the fully vaccinated rate in the US is close to 60% and the Canadian rate nears 80%, it is just about 10% with one dose on the African Continent. Yet this virus affects all humans in the same way.

Further, in day-to-day survival, many other particular social groups face inequality, including indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, people of color, women and girls…also face deep-rooted discrimination and thus, inequality.

As a principle of statutory interpretation, all declaratory rights are remedial in nature. This means that we, as attorneys, must do something to tackle inequality and to give meaning to the dignity and rights found in the UDHR. But where to start? As the world looks this uncertain, and almost gloomy…

“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. … 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.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

It starts in our day-to-day work. Every time we use our voices and expertise to persuade, negotiate and advocate for the people we help to ensure families are reunited, that young people can obtain a better education, that people can move across national borders without fear of discrimination, we give meaning to the universality of human rights, to the basic dignity of us all, and to the memories of little Alan Kurdi.

by Roland Luo