The Role of Canada in the International Promotion of Human Rights

By Hannah Dawson

Canada, today, is known around the world for its commitment to human rights, multiculturalism and tolerance. With a new Prime Minister who has reiterated these values at home and on international platforms, that image could not be clearer. Yet, as John Peters Humphrey notes in his speech, “The Role of Canada in the International Promotion of Human Rights”, this image of promotion and acceptance of human rights has not always rung true – for a period there was little discussion of human rights by the Canadian government on the international stage. Yet, by the mid-20th century, political leadership across Canada was facing a new wave of interest in human rights in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the newly formed United Nations was pressing for international covenants on human rights. While the Canadian government initially limited its involvement and interest in the human rights treaties and summits, the country’s foreign policy evolved on issues of race, religion, social structure and national rights to promote individual human rights around the world. There is little doubt that the Canadian delegations, as Humphrey explains, faced external pressure that immensely influenced what might otherwise have been a much different path to Canada’s internationally known human rights position and peacekeeping role.

Humphrey’s speech was inspired by the recent publication on the United Nations by the Department of External Affairs after a review of Canadian foreign policy. He immediately took the opportunity to criticize that human rights are not once mentioned in the publication. While the booklet refers to “focusing attention on two major international issues – race conflict and development assistance”, the sheer lack of reference to human rights in a publication on the United Nations is shocking. Humphrey explains that, despite the common belief about Canadian international policy on human rights at the time of his speech, the government’s actions did not demonstrate interest or involvement in human rights issues. He explains that “Canada’s general approach to human rights issues in the United Nations has tended to be cautious”, using the example that, as a country, we “played no role whatsoever in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. He goes on to explain that we “distinguished ourselves by abstaining in the vote on the Declaration in the Third Committee of the General Assembly – along with the communist countries, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.” Our record of the promotion of human rights, at the time, was on par with countries that had no rights for women, and a country that had a nation-wide policy of racism and discrimination. Our human rights promotion internationally appeared non-existent at the time.

Humphrey explains that within the “the first 15 years of the [United Nations] history [it cannot be argued that Canada] attempted to play a role in the United Nations’ programme for the promotion of human rights”. The lack of support for human rights can be argued as a reflection of the domestic political landscape of its time. After the Second World War, Canada’s interests were not focused on human rights. There was also extensive pressure from groups who were also pressuring the State Department against the Declaration, alongside a push for a good working relationship with the United States to ensure trade partnerships. As the primary trade partner for Canada, it was important to ensure that Canada did not promote human rights in ways that might have contradicted the actions of the United States, especially with the Korean War and the Cold War causing international tensions. It can be seen that the relationship with the United States likely, unintentionally, slowed Canada’s development as a promoter for human rights on the international stage

Humphrey notes that only in 1965 did Canada begin to play an active role in international bodies to promote human rights with its role in the work of the Third Committee on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination “in promoting the suggestion that the General Assembly appoint a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights”. Canada also had become such an important trade partner of the United States that it likely had more leverage, and more abilities to speak on the world stage. Canada has evolved to demonstrate its involvement in the United Nations and had, at the time of the speech, “become a leading protagonist among the developed western countries, in its opposition to the racist policies – to the point that Canada played a leading role in opposing the sale of arms to South Africa by Britain”.

Humphrey’s speech outlined Canada’s foreign policy with respect to human rights as flawed and slow, initially. It was not a priority for the Canadian government to promote these rights on the international stage, due to external pressures to ensure good relationships with other countries. Yet, Canada developed and grew to promote human rights within international bodies, especially with respect to issues of race. His speech outlined an argument that was not often shared as Canada’s human rights record often became entirely about its peacekeeping efforts, with its history largely left out of the conversation. He shared an educated perspective, as a Canadian who had promoted human rights around the world, that the government was not doing an adequate job of promoting human rights internationally. According to Humphrey, Canada made great strides forward after 1948 but there was much to be done and the nation still had much to prove.


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