Over the last decade, the concept of human rights has taken on increasing complexity in nations around the world, in large part because of the way it is viewed. There are times when to acknowledge the rights of one individual or group directly affects the access to human rights of another.
Such competing human rights can play out in many places, from the University classroom to the international stage, where groups actively promote a particular view of rights recognition that may hinder access to rights of others within the community. How do groups, organizations, governments, human rights commissions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academics approach this multi-faceted issue?
That question was at the heart of a two-day policy dialogue held at York University last weekend. "Towards a Framework to Address Competing Rights Claims" is a partnership between the York Centre for Public Policy & Law, the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Centre for Human Rights at York University. It brought academics, activists, representatives from human rights commissions from across Canada, non-governmental organizations, governments and special interest groups to York University where they talked openly about the sometimes thorny issue of competing human rights.
York Professor Lesley Jacobs (left), director of the York Centre for Public Policy & Law, served as the dialogue's organizer along with Professor Lorne Foster, director of York's Graduate Program in Public Policy, Administration & Law Program. Jacobs, a professor of law & society and political science, has long had an active research interest in competing human rights. "In the last 5 to 10 years, increasingly in Canada there has been a perception that rights conflicts and human rights commissions have been struggling with competing human rights," says Jacobs. "There have been trade-offs between free speech and rights, and concerns about hate or defamation or discriminatory speech. Issues that come to mind include the debate over same sex marriage, religious freedom and disability rights."
The surprising thing in Canada is that the country's human rights commissions, many of which have existed for 40 or 50 years, do not have policies on conflicting rights, says Jacobs. "So when the Ontario Human Rights Commission approached us [the York Centre for Public Policy & Law] to develop a policy dialogue on competing human rights, we saw an opportunity to bring together different stakeholders who could work together to lay the groundwork for the development of future policies on competing human rights."
Human rights are based in the values that societies live by and these values can be different between one society and another, says Jacobs. "A student may need a Seeing Eye dog to assist him with getting around the university. However, what about the student who has a severe allergy to dogs who sits in the same classroom? Both individuals have rights and these rights compete."
How society deals with such competing human rights will be the core of many future conversations, says Jacobs.
The policy dialogue, while closed to the community, was broadcast on a large format LCD screen in the Vari Hall Lecture Hall D on Friday, March 5 and Saturday, March 6. For Jacobs, the broadcast offered a wonderful opportunity for students, faculty and staff to watch and learn about competing human rights and the power of open dialogue to create policy.
"The vision we had when developing this conference was to bring leading stakeholders from a wide range of affected communities – faith communities, persons with disabilities, minority groups, same sex rights, all sorts of NGOs and civil society organizations – together with academics who work on rights conflicts from a wide range of perspectives, human rights lawyers and people from human rights commissions across the country to talk about competing human rights," says Jacobs.
The dialogue examined a host of different topics. The first day's session began with a discussion of the philosophical approaches to competing rights and participants and then moved on to discuss the legal frameworks of human rights, what a conflict is and how it can be resolved and competing rights in context. They finished the day with a discussion of creed and competing rights.
On Saturday, participants discussed the competing legal perspectives on competing rights, the social policy approach to competing human rights and the different societal perspectives, and the media's role in competing rights policy. The final session brought all of the discussions together to amass a potential framework for policy on competing human rights. The full program and session abstracts are available as an online PDF on the York Centre for Public Policy & Law Web site.
Final outcomes of the two-day dialogue include a future publication of the different papers and perspectives presented, and Jacobs hopes the dialogue will also mark the start of a series of events developed with a goal to create future policies on competing human rights.
For more information on the York Centre for Public Policy & Law, the Centre for Human Rights and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, visit their Web sites.
Additional support for this two-day dialogue was provided by the York Centre for Research on Work & Society, the Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, the Office of the Provost and the Law Foundation of Ontario.
By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor
Republished courtesy of YFile – York University’s daily e-bulletin.