News Notes of the Social Justice Committee of Montreal

By Sumaya Ugas

Delivered on October 13th 1983, the speech by John Humphrey titled For New Notes of the Social Justice Committee of Montreal highlights the importance of an international body working to ensure the rights of all people while recognizing the implications it has with regards to countries’ national sovereignty. The significance of this speech lies in Humphrey’s description of the Universal Declaration as “an international law by reference.”  This emphasis on universal standards of conduct as an international “legal” system shows not only his trust in the Declaration, and the United Nations as a regulatory body, but also demonstrates his sustained belief in the revolutionary nature of the Universal Declaration of Humans Rights.

John Humphrey begins his speech by reminding the audience of the imminent 35th anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While recognizing that rights violations did not suddenly end with the espousal of the Declaration, Humphrey nonetheless insists on the “real progress” that had been made since then, framing this progress not only through tangible metrics (the improvement of the status and condition of women for example) but also through the assertion that “traditional civil and political rights” would mean nothing if not for the Declaration (in that there would be no means of enforcing them).

That the rhetoric of Humphrey’s speech is one of progress and revolution in reference to the body of “international law” is unsurprising given the audience of the speech. Founded in 1975, the Social Justice Committee of Montreal (now known as the Social Justice Connection) strived to “connect Montrealers with the social struggles of Central America”. Their work focused primarily on issues of poverty and economic exploitation. In their statement of purpose the Social Justice Connection states that it “target[s] the most powerful institutions on the globe to have the greatest impact on behalf of communities that face poverty, oppression and marginalization. We focus especially on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The SJC is the most active NGO in Canada in pushing for greater accountability and transparency at these institutions.”

One could see how Humphrey’s message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “an international law by reference” would be well received by a group already invested in international accountability processes. Such organizations and the power they potentially wield, or can leverage through their activism by demanding the upholding of internationally recognized human rights, falls within Humphrey’s vision of the Declaration as revolutionary. This serves to introduce a global standard against which countries have to measure up, while also creating a tangible resource for civil society to refer to in demanding respect for human rights. This is especially apparent in the Social Justice Connection’s commitment to “push for the full application of international laws in human rights along with ideals of social justice such as equality, non-discrimination and other conditions that contribute to a life oh fulfillment.”

Humphrey points to the reluctant attitudes of governments as major factors in the “necessarily slow and difficult” process of achieving real progress despite the existence of “international standards of conduct.” To illustrate this, he uses as example the case of Sandra Lovelace, who was stripped of her status “in her Indian band” despite the fact that “under the Indian Act if an Indian man marries a non-Indian woman he brings her into his tribe.” Due to the language of the Act, which very clearly gave space for gender-based discrimination, Sandra Lovelace was not only denied the right to bring her spouse “into her own tribe” but had her own status taken from her.

Because the Canadian government failed to give Lovelace the justice she sought, and because the discrimination she faced was “prohibited by the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights […] she took her case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee” where her case was heard. She ultimately received the justice and recognition that her human rights were supposed to guarantee.  One could argue that Humphrey’s use of this particular case to demonstrate the very real ways in which governments, and in this case our own Canadian government, can – and will – neglect the guaranteeing of their constituents’ human rights until international bodies provide the grounds on which justice can be served.

Indeed, it is also interesting to read this speech in the contemporary context of the many, longstanding struggles and activist work around Truth and Reconciliation, as well as the push for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada. One would thus question Humphrey’s belief in the supposedly revolutionary nature of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if, almost 70 years later, large scale human rights violations continue to happen. Or, if one does not question the Declaration as revolutionary then one should at least seriously think about the ways in which national sovereignty continues to stifle attempts at holding governments accountable for their failings in ensuring, respecting, and enforcing the rights of all their peoples.

Comments are closed.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.