International Human Rights Law

A Brief History: The International Bill of Rights

Human rights gained popularity following the atrocities of the Second World War, which led to the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.   This historic document states the basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that every individual is entitled to just by virtue of their existence. It is part of a collection of documents in international law that make up the “International Bill of Human Rights”— the UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The UDHR was created to outline human rights as a general concept and establish their importance in the international realm. The United Nations (UN) then decided to create Covenants to define specific rights, their limitations, and to outline the role of states. The ICCPR and the ICESCR were adopted by the UN on December 16, 1966 and subsequently ratified by Canada in May 1976. The creation of these Covenants put a requirement on governments to implement policies, programs and laws to meet the obligations outlined to protect the human rights.

The UDHR and ICESCR are important with regard to poverty because they clearly express rights that protect from the manifestations of poverty. Although there is no “right to be free from poverty”, the idea of an adequate standard of living encompasses the rights to be free from hunger, poor health, lack of social security, inadequate housing, and other poverty-related rights.

International Human Rights Law: Obligations on States

International human rights law outlines what states are required to do — or not do — with regards to poverty and human rights. States have three basic obligations once they have signed on and ratified human rights treaties at the international level. The obligation to protect is the most straightforward because it is simply the requirement that states must look after individuals and groups to guard them from violations of their rights. Similarly, the obligation to fulfill declares that states have to take action to ensure that individuals can enjoy their rights properly (for example, passing legislation that protects human rights). Finally, and in contrast with the other obligations, the obligation to respect demands that states do not needlessly interfere with individuals enjoying their human rights.

International Human Rights Instruments

When it comes to international law and human rights, there are a few different instruments and tools that are used. The most well-known are treaties, which are agreements that states sign on to willingly regarding a certain issue. For example, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is concerned with states’ obligations to protect children’s rights. There are “Optional Protocols” that are add-ons to the treaties to detail certain situations not covered under the original treaties. The United Nations also passes Declarations — the most well-known and relevant example being the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) —, General Assembly resolutions, and principles. However, for the purposes of poverty and human rights in Canada, the major legal instruments are treaties and optional protocols.

International Human Rights Treaties Ratified by Canada

There are a number of treaties that the Government of Canada has ratified, which means that it is legally obligated to uphold them under both international and domestic law. The most commonly known example is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which was ratified by Canada in 1976. However, there are six other major human rights instruments that Canada has signed on to and ratified:

  • CERD: International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ratified on October 14, 1970)
  • ICESCR: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ratified on May 19, 1976)
  • CEDAW: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (ratified on December 10, 1981)
  • CAT: Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (ratified on June 24, 1987)
  • CRC: Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified on December 13, 1991)
  • CRPD: Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (ratified on March 11, 2010)

One thing that connects all of these treaties is the idea of the right to an adequate standard of living which was first introduced in the UDHR and articulated clearly in Article 11(1) of the ICESCR and Article 28 of the CERD.

Optional Protocols

There are also “Optional Protocols” to the original Covenants/Conventions which protect against specific situations not detailed in the original documents; for example, Canada has ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR aimed at the elimination of the death penalty as of November 2005. Other examples include:

  • CRC-OP-AC: Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (ratified on July 7, 2000)
  • CRC-OP-SC: Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (ratified on September 14, 2005)