The History of Human Rights

From the beginnings of history, men and women have sought human rights. For instance, the Code of Hammurabi, often referred to as humanity's first charter of rights, was enacted about seventeen centuries before the birth of Christ. While at times draconian, the first known legal code sought to protect the weak from the strong.

By the twentieth century, the struggle for human rights was becoming more intense, with the idea of individual human rights gaining ever-wider attention and entering into international law. In the nineteenth century, individual human rights were still subordinate to the concept of national sovereignty. However, after World War I, international organizations such as the League of Nations and the International Court of The Hague were established to provide a forum where accusations of human rights violations could be debated. At an early stage of these developments, Canada became an active member of international attempts to secure individual, national and economic human rights.

Sadly, none of this was enough to prevent the rise of fascism and Nazism and the outbreak of World War Read More
The History of Human Rights

From the beginnings of history, men and women have sought human rights. For instance, the Code of Hammurabi, often referred to as humanity's first charter of rights, was enacted about seventeen centuries before the birth of Christ. While at times draconian, the first known legal code sought to protect the weak from the strong.

By the twentieth century, the struggle for human rights was becoming more intense, with the idea of individual human rights gaining ever-wider attention and entering into international law. In the nineteenth century, individual human rights were still subordinate to the concept of national sovereignty. However, after World War I, international organizations such as the League of Nations and the International Court of The Hague were established to provide a forum where accusations of human rights violations could be debated. At an early stage of these developments, Canada became an active member of international attempts to secure individual, national and economic human rights.

Sadly, none of this was enough to prevent the rise of fascism and Nazism and the outbreak of World War II. As a result, by 1948, large parts of the world lay in ruins. Indeed, it was the response of an aroused world public opinion to the unprecedented human rights violations—-including mass murder, torture and slave labour—-that occurred immediately before and during the Second World War that ultimately resulted in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Even before the end of the war, the Allies had adopted as their rallying cry freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. Men and women who had fought and lived through this conflagration came out with the conviction that the horrors of the Holocaust must never be repeated. For this reason, the Charter of the United Nations adopted at the Peace conference of San Francisco in 1945 was founded upon the principle of equality of all human beings in rights and dignity without discrimination as to race, sex, language or religion.

John Humphrey, a native of Hampton, New Brunswick, was the main author of the text that would eventually be adopted by the UN General Assembly as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would take many years of effort by him and others at the UN and in its member states to transform this Declaration into treaty law. The International Bill of Rights consists of the Universal Declaration and two principal treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The covenants were adopted and proposed for ratification in December 1966 and came into force ten years later.

Many other international instruments have since supplemented the International Bill of Rights in the areas of discrimination against women, children’s rights, race discrimination and elimination of torture, to mention a few. Canada was an early proponent of the development and ratification of such instruments. In recent years, it subscribed to regional systems like the Charter of the Organisation of American States and was a leading advocate for the establishment of the World Criminal Court. All these instruments create obligations for Canadian governments at the federal, provincial and local levels.

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Human Rights in New Brunswick

The Province of New Brunswick enacted the Fair Employment Practices Act in 1956, the Fair Accommodation Practices Act in 1959, and the Female Employees Fair Remuneration Act in 1961. However, the spirit of these acts emphasized law enforcement, rather than education. Since little effort was made to change public attitudes, the public remained virtually unaware that such protection even existed. As a result, few complaints were actually filed.

During the 1960’s, the Government of New Brunswick proved itself capable of engineering substantial social change. The Program of Equal Opportunity transformed the Province through a radical reform of local administration and improved access to public education and health services. The government’s cornerstone legislative enactments for this program were the Human Rights Code (also called the Human Rights Act) and the Official Languages Act.

Since its inception in 1967, the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission has evolved into an organization with a staff complement of 12 distributed in four offices around the province. During the 1970’s and early 80’s, the scope of the Human Rights Code was expanded as new areas of discrimination were addressed: sex (1971), marital status and age (1973), physical disability (1976), mental disability (1985) and sexual harassment (1987).

During this same period, there were substantial developments at the federal level. By the mid 1970's, it was increasingly apparent that judicial interpretation had watered down the Canadian Bill of Rights to such an extent that commentators doubted that it would ever live up to its promise. Furthermore, the failure of federal-provincial negotiations on the Victoria Charter had halted federal-provincial negotiations toward a revised constitutional document with human rights guarantees. Meanwhile, the provinces had for the most part adopted non-discrimination legislation. However, the federal government had not. All of this changed with the adoption of the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977, one year after the coming into force of the international covenants of the International Bill of Rights. The Canadian Human Rights Commission established by the new law has proven to be a powerful ally to provincial Commissions in the promotion and protection of human rights across Canada.

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Learning Objectives

Learners will understand the history of human rights, specifically in New Brunswick.

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