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Basic human rights = world peace Economic Human Rights

What comes to mind when you hear the words 'human rights'? Heart-wrenching stories from victims of torture and trauma, judges at the International War Crimes Tribunal, television footage of war and pillage, the work of Amnesty International? What about economic human rights?

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What are economic human rights?
Human rights defender Josephine Grey says, "For most people in North America, human rights are a distant problem faced by people in other countries." We tend to think of human rights abuses as basic violations to life - war, rape, genocide. Some of us also think of human rights violations as employment discrimination on the basis of race or gender, or barred access to public buildings on the basis of ability. These are certainly human rights violations! But there are other more subtle human rights violations that take place everyday even in our seemingly wealthy and peaceful Canadian society.

Not many of us have taken the time to think about the right to an adequate standard of living as a human right. The right to a life free of poverty. The right to fair participation in the economy. What about the right to the means to care for one's children? Food? Shelter? Don't we all deserve those things? Too often poor people are blamed for their own poverty: she didn't work hard enough, he made bad choices, she got pregnant when she shouldn't have. But no matter what our income or ability we all contribute to this world we share and therefore we all have a right to share in its richness. There is a growing movement calling for full recognition of these economic human rights.

Economic rights and the UN
There are numerous United Nations Agreements that support economic human rights. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Unfortunately, these are not generally well-known documents - many of our political leaders are not even aware of these agreements and the responsibilities that they entail. In Canada we have tended to assume that the free market can create a world in which all have their basic needs met so often we haven't considered economic, social, and cultural rights.

But poverty is rising across Canada and across the world. Millions of people around the world do not have access to the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter. And despite human rights language that promises special treatment to women and children, these groups remain among the majority of the poor. Of the world's 1.5 billion people living in absolute poverty, 70% are female.

Challenging economic human rights violations
Fortunately, more and more citizens are recognizing the economic human rights violations that are taking place all over the world, violations ignored by most governments. International agreements are a powerful tool to be used to challenge current economic structures and demand economic human rights for all. The following are a few examples of people demanding economic human rights.

The Ontario People's Report
Josephine Grey speaking on Economic Human Rights in WinnipegIn 1998 it was Canada's turn to report to the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Not trusting their government to truthfully report on the country's implementation of this Covenant, representatives from non-government organizations (NGOs) took it upon themselves to challenge Canada's violations of economic human rights, preparing their own presentations to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva. Human rights defender Josephine Grey and others coordinated, authored and presented the Ontario People's Report which detailed how the governments of Canada and in particular Ontario, have contravened every major article of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The 18 committee members - experts from around the world - were shocked at this report and others, and unsatisfied with the government delegation's meagre attempts to defend their country. In their concluding declarations, the Committee said:

In addressing the budget deficits by slashing social expenditure, the State Party has not paid sufficient attention to the adverse consequences for the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by the Canadian population as a whole, and by vulnerable groups in particular.
The Committee then detailed 28 other criticisms of Canada's implementation of the Convention and provided 20 recommendations for reparation for these abuses. While the committee's recommendations are not legally binding, Canadian government officials were greatly embarrassed at this international disclosure. For the committee's full report visit the Concluding Observations of the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights 1998.

Kimberly Rogers and Louise Gosselin
Canadians are also using their own Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to demand their economic human rights at home. Two significant cases involve Kimberly Rogers and Louise Gosselin.

In August 2001, Kimberly Rogers was found dead in her apartment in Sudbury, Ontario during a heat wave. Ms. Rogers was forty years old, destitute, eight months pregnant, and under house arrest for welfare fraud. The temperature in her apartment was 34°C. Several months before her death Ms. Rogers admitted to having accepted student loans while being on social assistance - recently made illegal by Ontario's Conservative government. As a result, she received a lifetime ban on welfare, was ordered to pay back most of the money, and ordered to serve 6-months of house arrest. In response, she filed a lawsuit challenging the welfare ban as unconstitutional and a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Ms. Rogers died before the ruling took place.

Since her death, many other organizations and individuals have picked up the work begun by Ms. Rogers. There were immediate calls for an inquest into her death which began in October 2002. Women's organizations, anti-poverty groups and others testified that Ms. Rogers' death was unnecessary and unjust and demanded that policies be reversed in order to ensure that all have access to the basic necessities of life. To find out more about the case and its conclusion visit Justice with Dignity: Committee to Remember Kimberly Rogers.

Fifteen years before Kimberly Rogers filed her lawsuit, a 27-year-old Montreal woman named Louise Gosselin, launched a similar suit against the government of her province. Ms. Gosselin challenged the 1985 Quebec law (which is no longer law) which allowed that welfare recipients without children who were under the age of 30 received substantially less than recipients over the age of 30. She was made to survive on only $163 per month at a time when a one-bedroom apartment cost at least $320. As a result Ms. Gosselin was forced to endure homelessness, occasionally exchanged sex for food or money, and spent a winter in an unheated apartment. Ms. Gosselin also used the Canadian Charter on Rights and Freedoms in her case. Unfortunately, in December 2003 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Ms. Gosselin's case. This was a bitter loss. However it is worth noting that 4 out of 9 Supreme Court judges voted in her favour.

Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign
While change is a long time coming, the work of the courageous women who launched these actions is inspiring as well as hopeful. So are the actions of people working outside of the courts. In the United States, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union has put together a Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. One of their main activities is an annual bus tour. Poor people from across the country travel together from coast to coast, documenting economic human rights violations to be presented at a tribunal. While listening to stories, travellers also share their strategies for change, strengthening relationships among poor people's groups across the country.

A Manitoba Bill of Economic Rights
A Manitoba group has come up with yet another strategy to demand economic human rights for all. On October 17, 2001, the International Day for the Elimination of Poverty, the Manitoba Coalition for Economic Justice launched a People's Bill of Economic Rights - An Agenda for the Elimination of Poverty. This powerful document sends a strong message to both citizens and government that there are rights of which all Manitobans are deserving, and sets a strong set of guidelines which can be applied to the development of government policy and programming within Manitoba and Canada.

Economic rights in the global economy
Challenges to economic human rights violations are not simply happening at regional and national levels. Many groups are also working to challenge a global economy which paves the way for economic human rights violations around the world. It is becoming more and more clear that the world's wealthiest countries benefit most from a global economy that favours free trade and economic globalization. And rather than providing more protection, free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) undermine government's ability to protect national laws and standards. Visit Intro to Globalization to learn more about this process. To hear of one woman's dream for the globalization of human rights rather than corporate rights, see Gisèle's Story.

What can I do?
The language of human rights is catching on! We can help that process by using phrases like 'economic human rights' when talking about poverty - both in our communities and around the world. We can also find ways to participate in the economy that do not limit others' access to the system. Visit our Alternatives for ideas like ethical consumption and alternative food and money systems. And we can work to remind our governments that, "Human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings; their protection and promotion is the first responsibility of Governments."1

It is up to all of us to start taking economic human rights seriously - our own and those of the rest of the world. As Josephine Grey puts it, "Human rights are not a special interest group demand. Human rights belong to everyone."




1 Human rights: Use them or lose them. Video recording. Low Income Families Together and CineFocus Canada, 2000.

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