December 10, 1948
75th Anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Canada’s Less than Honourable Role
Canada’s abstention in the vote at the Third Committee on the final draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 7, 1948 raised a lot of eyebrows at the time. Writing about this in the McGill Law Journal, William A. Schabas said:
In a speech to the General Assembly, External Affairs Minister Lester B. Pearson explained the decision as a federal concern about infringing provincial jurisdiction. Even at the time, many, including Canadian international law professor John Humphrey, who served as director of the UN Secretariat’s Division for Human Rights, and secretary to the Preparatory Commission of the UN, found the story hard to accept. The author’s research of archival documents now available shows that Canadian hesitation was principally due to discomfort in the Federal Cabinet with substantive norms enshrined in the Declaration, including freedom of religion and of association. The evidence suggests that provincial jurisdiction was little more than a pretext for federal politicians who wanted to avoid international human rights commitments. The Canadian Government misled both domestic and international public opinion by concealing its substantive opposition to the Declaration behind procedural arguments. […]
Despite the enthusiastic involvement of Humphrey, the Canadian government’s attitude toward the Declaration was skeptical; at its extreme, Canada’s attitude bordered on hostility. During the vote on the draft Declaration in the Third Committee of the General Assembly, the Canadian delegation, under the personal direction and instruction of Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson, broke ranks with the vast majority of United Nations’ members and declined to support the Declaration.
In May 1947 as work of the drafting committee proceeded, Canada established a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms with a mandate to consider how obligations arising from a UN Declaration on Human Rights could best be implemented by Canada. Legal counsel for the Department of External Affairs and Humphrey emphasized to apparently skeptical parliamentarians on the Committee that the Declaration would not be a human rights treaty which would bind states that acceded to it but rather a resolution of the General Assembly with no binding effect on international law.
Minutes of the Joint Committee’s meetings in 1948, reproduced or referred to by Schabas, reveal some of the concerns Canada had with the Declaration as the vote on a final draft approached. One was that it did not mention, but should, that all rights came from God; another was that the non-discrimination clause appeared to conflict with Canada’s internment of people of Japanese origin, to which a BC MP responded by saying that “there was no human rights violation in the treatment of the Japanese [since] they had been interned not because of ‘race’ but because of ‘loyalty or subversive attitudes.'” Another concern was that the democratic rights provision in the Declaration would entitle Indigenous peoples to vote at a time when Status Indians were prohibited from voting in Canada. Senator Gouin said that was not a problem since “they have the right to choose to be wards of the state and not vote, or to vote and have freedom.”
In the end, the parliamentary committee indicated that it generally viewed the Declaration favourably; however in its report it did ask that the Canadian delegation take into account that it was generally opposed to “unnecessary” articles and wanted it on the record that the name of God should be embodied in the first article.
Canada Abstains in Vote to Approve Final Draft of Declaration
When discussion in the Third Committee moved to articles in the Declaration dealing with economic and social rights, Canada declared its intention to abstain from voting, claiming this was not out of opposition to the principles set forth in those articles but because the federal government “will not invade the field of provincial jurisdiction, particularly in regard to education.”
Canada also argued in the Third Committee against the inclusion of a minority rights clause, claiming that in Canada there were no such issues that needed addressing. Its delegate said, “It has been stated that the problem of minorities may arise as the result of the arrival in a country of new settlers from a foreign country, or it may arise from the unfavourable circumstances in which certain indigenous national groups may find themselves. I can say quite confidently that for Canada the problem of minorities, regarded in either of these two ways, does not exist…in the sense that there is no discontent.”
As the time approached for a last vote on the final draft, different scenarios were discussed between officials at External Affairs and the delegation in Paris for how Canada could work to stall the vote to buy time to tailor the document more to the government’s liking. The problem however was how, in so doing, not to fall afoul of the U.S and Britain, who were both keen to pass the Declaration without further delay, and how to avoid making Canada the subject of criticism for appearing in principle to oppose the adoption of a human rights declaration.
Matters were brought to a head, however, with an unambiguous message sent by acting Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, who said he was particularly concerned about the potential for articles dealing with freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and the right to employment in the public service to be used “as an undertaking not to discriminate against communists because of their political views and of article 27 as obliging a state to provide higher education to everyone at the cost of the state if he cannot pay for it.” The delegation replied, “In accordance with your instructions the Canadian delegation will not sponsor nor support the early passage of the Declaration on Human Rights in its present form.”
The back and forth continued, however, over what Canada should do as Lester Pearson became increasingly concerned that abstaining in the final vote and standing against the vast majority, including the U.S. and Britain, would not be good for Canada’s image. Domestic political calculations appear to have led Pearson in the end to advise abstaining in the Third Committee vote and voting in favour of the Declaration in the General Assembly.
On December 7, when it came time to vote on the final draft in the Third Committee, Canada joined the USSR, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in abstaining. Schabas writes that after the vote Pearson, who was by now in Paris to attend the upcoming meeting of the General Assembly, informed Ottawa that Canada’s delegation was urgently approached by the United Kingdom and the United States, who explained they were prepared to approve the Declaration in the form it was in, despite its imperfections, because of its value as a propaganda tool for use against countries in the Soviet bloc where, they claimed, people’s human rights were being denied. They regarded Canada’s abstention “as a serious weakening of the propaganda position which they were hoping to achieve” Pearson said. It also was not lost on him how it looked for Canada to have been the odd-man-out by abstaining, along with the members of the “Soviet bloc” — if for very different reasons.
Three days later, in keeping with the plan, Canada switched and voted in favour of the Declaration at the General Assembly. Pearson’s December 10 speech to the Assembly addressed a number of Canadian reservations concerning some “difficulties and ambiguities” in the Declaration, but clearly implied that there were no serious problems with the substance of the instrument. Not convinced, Schabas says:
Yet the documents in the National Archives reveal a different story. Prime Minister St. Laurent himself had expressed major concerns about freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and the right to employment in the public service, because of their potential invocation by Communists. Unnamed members of the Cabinet also complained about protecting freedom of religion as the provision might provide support to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even the opposition to recognition of economic and social rights, presented as nothing more than a federal-provincial dispute, clearly cut deeper. The Parliamentary Committee had already indicated that it felt such provisions, which imposed duties on states rather than granting rights to individuals, had no place in the Declaration… […]
The Canadian Government, and the Department of Foreign Affairs in particular, misled both domestic and international public opinion by concealing its substantive opposition to the Declaration behind procedural arguments. Aside from the outright hostility to specific provisions of the Declaration, there was also a strong dose of indifference…. […]
There was simply no “human rights culture” within the Department of External Affairs. It is impossible to identify a single official among the many distinguished Canadian personalities who then worked for the Department — including Pearson, [Escott] Reid and [George] Ignatieff — who viewed the Declaration as being of real significance. None of them even mentioned the subject in their memoirs. They seem to have been preoccupied by other issues of the day, such as the Berlin airlift and the creation of NATO.
1. Schabas, William A. (1998) Canada and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. McGill Law Journal, 43 (2). pp. 403-441.