From Declaration to Inspiration: UN High Commissioner's Insightful Address on the 75th Anniversary of the UDHR in Canada

Faculty of Law - Common Law Section
Human rights

By Common Law

Communication, Faculty of Law

 A man stands at a podium on a stage. many people sit facing him.
The following story was written by Alexandra Cunningham (4th year FSS Conflict Studies and Human Rights), Paige Holland (1L) and Kate De Klerk (1L) as part of the series BEYOND THE CLASS. The series shares first-hand accounts of experiential learning opportunities and op-eds written by our students.

Almost 75 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Human Rights Research & Education Centre (HRREC) and the Neuberger-Jesin Professor of International Conflict Resolution (Professor John Packer) were delighted to host the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Volker Türk, for his first and only public address in Canada almost a year to the day since he took up his official functions. The hour-long event – attended by students, university staff, civil society, and governmental and inter-governmental officials – took place October 16th before a full and attentive audience in Tabaret Hall at the University of Ottawa.

The event began with an indigenous affirmation and observations from uOttawa’s Provost and Vice President, Academic Affairs, Dr Jill Scott, who noted some of uOttawa’s human rights goals ranging from ensuring language rights, through decolonization and indigenization on campus, to upholding academic freedom commitments.

High Commissioner Türk began with an indigenous land recognition of his own before acknowledging the many human rights challenges facing the world and the sense of panic this is inspiring, especially for the young people in the room who will inherit this reality. He mentioned several current issues, such as climate change, racism, sexism, digital hate and technology, and the war in Ukraine. He directly addressed the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, stating that while Israel has legitimate security concerns, the response must follow international law (such as the norm of proportionality).

a man stands at a podium, it appears that he is speaking because his mouth is open and his hand is elevated

Conscious of his audience, the High Commissioner’s speech was primarily directed towards the university students in the crowd, reminding them that 75 years ago, when the UN and UDHR were created following the devastation of World War II, the world was in a similar state of uncertainty and crisis. He reminded the audience of the good that came from new norms, and while it can be argued that the causal relationship he drew between the UDHR and the various social movements since its adoption might be giving the non-legally binding Declaration a bit too much credit, it served as a compelling reminder of the power of ideas.

Interestingly and admirably, High Commissioner Türk did not shy away from addressing some of the current human rights issues facing Canada. While he praised Canada for its commitment to human rights, he pointed to the need for further reconciliation efforts with Indigenous nations, the ongoing housing crisis, and Canada’s role protecting the Arctic region from climate change.

two images side by side. The first is a close view of a man standing at a podium. The next shows a large room, with many people seated on chairs, facing a man at a podium in the distance

Mr. Türk focused his concern on the survivors and victims, notably of the human rights atrocities facing individuals around the world. He noted that there are in the world today the highest number of violent conflicts since 1945 with one-quarter of humanity living in places of conflict and war. While the majority of the Western world lives in situations of abundance and wealth, nonetheless we feel the ever-growing threat of global unrest or possible world war. Indeed, there is a general sense of panic that exists in the 21st century as we face worsening climate change, dozens of international armed conflicts, and an ever-increasing global gap in equality and wealth.

Mr. Türk presented an approach that sought to depoliticize the conflicts and, instead, emphasised the human suffering in conflicts and the damage that diminishes well-being, reduces security and undermines peace. His most moving comment – worth carrying forward both in our professional and personal lives – was that “the people with the most are carrying the least.” Thus he implied that the inverse is also true – that those with the least in this world are carrying some of the heaviest burdens. Armed conflicts in this world are happening disproportionately in Africa and the Middle East, barring the Ukraine-Russia War. These include some of the most impoverished communities. In order to have a fulsome understanding of these conflicts, we need to personalize them in terms of the survivors and victims, realizing that they are struggling with poverty alongside intense conflict. In this regard, Mr Türk applauded those who have escaped from colonial systems and he shared how the UN can empower people to take back their rights. He advocated that everyone in a society should have a common voice or stake in the political decisions being made – in short, the right of self-determination.  Rooted in the UN Charter and two human rights Covenants of 1966, the right of self-determination applies everywhere – including in Canada – and in all contexts of traditional and contemporary forms of colonialism.

A wide view of a room where many people are seated, facing a man at a podium in the distance. There is a woman standing in the audience with a microphone. She and the speaker are facing each other.

Recalling his recent dialogue with Indigenous representatives in Ecuador, Mr Türk discussed the importance of harmonized initiatives and meaningful participation between governments and Indigenous leaders. This was reiterated in Mr Türk’s account of his conversations in Chile in the context of jurisdictional issues decided in constitutional courts.

Harmonizing Indigenous perspectives when considering such issues is an important topic for law students to consider. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) Calls to Action (CTA) specifically call out law students and lawyers, imploring legal professionals to undertake training on cultural competency, and emphasising the intersection of Indigenous peoples and the law. Mr Türk recalled that the primary message from Indigenous leaders in Ecuador was “nothing for us, and nothing about us, without us”.[1] This is an essential perspective to consider when contemplating the harmonization of Indigenous Legal Orders and Canadian Common Law.

Mr Türk’s address coincided with the 1L CTA Modules, which are a direct response to TRC CTAs 27 and 28. These modules were hosted by Indigenous leaders and reflect the sentiment “nothing about us, without us”. In the modules, 1L students are taught directly by Indigenous elders and leaders, harmonizing Indigenous teachings and customs with the English Common Law program. Holding space for Indigenous teachings, perspectives and values in educational institutions is a meaningful step in training culturally competent lawyers. It is our shared responsibility to bring these competencies, skills, and a willingness to learn into the legal profession.

two  men stand at a podium. One is extending his hand to the other, offering a gift

The UN adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007.  In 2021, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Actwas granted Royal Assent and came into force in Canada. UNDRIP Article 27 compels our country to implement “fair, independent, impartial, open, and transparent process, giving due recognition to indigenous peoples’ laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems, to recognize and adjudicate the rights of indigenous peoples pertaining to their lands, territories and resources […] Indigenous people shall have the right to participate in this process”.

Accordingly, Canada – and Canadian trained lawyers – cannot unilaterally impose decisions in cases about Indigenous people, land, or history without consideration of the unique intersection of Indigenous people and the Common Law. In response to the CTAs, courts should be willing to take a harmonized approach when considering such cases. As Mr Türk reminded the audience, many countries have a lot to learn regarding the importance of harmonizing with Indigenous peoples, especially regarding legal and jurisdictional issues.  

Following his substantial address, Professor Penelope Simons, Gordon F. Henderson Professor of Human Rights, posed a number of questions to Mr Türk, including regarding some complex and pressing social and economic issues.  In his response, Mr Türk suggested Canadians consider such issues more fully and specifically in terms of human rights.  As an example, he drew attention to the idea of “financialization” of housing (as explained by former UN Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha of Canada); instead, it was suggested, a fully conceived human right to housing would result in better public policy, law and practice.

Mr Türk ended his remarks with a sincere wish that this year would mark a turning point for the world, as it was 75 years ago – that the prevailing suffering could once again bring the world together to create meaningful change. It was an inspiring message with which all could agree after a thought-provoking evening.

The full speech of Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, from October 16 is available on the United Nations website.

[1] The slogan “nothing about us, without us” has uncertain origin, but was popularised in the 1990s by Disability Rights Organizations (see, e.g., J.I. Charlton, “Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment”, University of California Press, 1998), and has been long used as a motto for various minority advocacy groups.