Human Rights in the School

Chapter Two

Human Rights Defined

The last several decades have witnessed a multitude of changes to Canadian society. These include the increased participation of women in the paid labour force, the reshaping of many of our social institutions, as well as marked advances in technology. With economic development and increased social diversity, the social, legal and philosophical issues to be considered on a daily basis are becoming increasingly complex.

Despite growing attention to the recognition and protection of human rights, the observance of human rights continues to present significant challenges. Throughout the world, many governments in power refuse to recognize the rights of large numbers of their citizens. States differ in their commitment to social justice. Societies may also lack an understanding of human equality and an appreciation of diversity. These values will all be reflected in which human rights principles are recognized and in how human rights are observed

Human rights, by their very nature, touch us on a personal level and may challenge our belief systems. Human rights discussions are frequently passionate and controversial. The temptation for those charged with the responsibility of ensuring that society respects human rights may be to ignore such concerns in the hope that they will either resolve themselves or simply fade away. This approach is especially unjust to those suffering oppression or inequity. Further, the price of not safeguarding human rights can be social unrest and upheaval witness the events surrounding the struggles for recognition of Native land claims and French language rights, as well as the women's suffrage movement in Canada and elsewhere.

A further consequence of not addressing the protection of rights is the loss of human potential. Observance of human rights principles requires respect for the dignity and worth of each individual. Such validation provides a foundation which enables all members of society to reach their potential as human beings and thereby full and meaningful contributions to society. Disregarding human rights deprives individuals, and often entire groups, of the opportunity of achieving, full participation in society and, in turn, robs society of their contribution

Human rights are generally defined as fundamental, inalienable rights claimed by virtue of being human. They are rights that we, as individuals, all possess equally. They are the essentials to which we are all entitled in order to preserve the integrity and dignity of life. They include freedom of movement, the right to vote, the right to work, the right to security of the person, as well as the right to privacy and the right to express oneself freely and openly.

Human rights can be divided into two categories. Civil and political rights include the right to equality, justice and democracy. Social and economic rights refer to such rights as the right to work, the right to own property, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to be free from hunger.

All human rights are important. They are interdependent and interrelated, for it is their recognition as a whole which provides the foundation for acknowledging the dignity and worth of each individual.

The Development of Human Rights

The notion of human rights has its roots in ancient societies, traditional religious beliefs, and early philosophical thought. Only recently, however, has here been a political recognition of human rights, including governmental undertakings to enact human rights legislation, for all members of society.

Prior to World War II, there were few legal mechanisms designed to safeguard human rights. The horror and devastation of World War II brought a significant increase in the concern for preventing such future conflicts and human rights atrocities. In 1945, the United Nations was formed. Its primary purpose was the maintenance of peace and the promotion of human rights. Shortly thereafter, the U.N. drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it was passed by unanimous vote in 1948. This document was to serve as a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations."14

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out in Appendix II, begins in Article I by affirming: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." In the 30 articles which follow, the Universal Declaration asserts each individual's right to life, liberty and security, as well as to equality, democracy, justice and basic social and economic rights

Whether or not the Universal Declaration is legally binding on the countries which signed it is a matter of debate amongst human rights scholars. It nevertheless serves as an important standard for behaviour according to which individuals, institutions and nations can be, and are, judged. Human rights laws, including the Canadian Bill of Rights of 1960, our federal, provincial and territorial human rights codes, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, have evolved from the principles articulated in the Universal Declaration.

Rights and Responsibilities

Human rights, as stated previously, include a number of civil, political and basic economic and social rights. These rights, however, are not, for the most part, considered to be absolute in nature. Some limitations are essential. As members of society, our actions necessarily impact on others. Individuals are entitled to exercise their rights and freedoms only to the extent that they do not infringe unreasonably on the rights and freedoms of others.15 For example, the Criminal Code, in section 181,16 states that one's right to freedom of expression does not entitle one to publish materials which one knows are false and which are likely to cause "injury or mischief to a public interest".

Rights and freedoms, then, must be exercised responsibly. They are subject to reasonable limitations. It is easy to agree that a person's right to freedom of movement, for example, does not entitle that person to drive his or her car into that of another. But what can be considered reasonable is not always easily agreed upon. Careful consideration may be necessary to balance collecting rights and freedoms of individuals in any given case.

The Human Rights of Children

To what extent do children possess human rights? The answer is not a simple one. The U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to grow up in freedom with dignity (See table 1). The Declaration includes such rights as the right to wholesome food, housing, medical care and free education and the rights to love and understanding. While this Declaration is supported in principle by the countries which have ratified it, it is not legally binding.

In principle, children are also entitled to all the human rights and freedoms which adults possess. The Universal Declaration does not restrict its statement of human rights to adults. In fact, Article 2 expressly declares that all human beings are entitled to be treated equally, regardless of, among other things, age.

Yet children differ greatly from adults in two key areas needs and abilities.17 Children have special needs that adults may not share to the same degree, such as the need for protection from forces which would prey upon their vulnerability. At the same time other human needs, such as the need for meaningful work, are not as relevant to children.

Children also differ from adults in their ability to bear responsibility. This poses a problem in determining the human rights of children, for rights often have corresponding responsibilities. As discussed earlier, human rights philosophy demands that rights be exercised responsibly so as not to infringe unreasonably on the rights of others. Yet, the lack of maturity of children can limit their ability to exercise their human rights responsibly.

Because both children's needs, as well as their ability to bear responsibility, differ from those of adults, one may be tempted to conclude that human rights are not applicable to children.

In Canadian society, and in fact throughout the world, children have few rights which are sanctioned by law. What legal rights children do possess in Canada generally stem from a social attitude of protection rather than one of inherent rights.18 One has to question, however, whether society's restrictive attitude towards children's rights is fair and reasonable, and is, in the end, to the benefit of children and society.

Without question, adult caregivers have a responsibility to provide physical care and guidance to children and young people. Yet as children mature, their ability to make choices regarding their own self-determination also grows.

Restrictions on the rights of children, legal and otherwise, are largely based on a presumption of incapacity until the age of majority. Yet children vary greatly according to age groups and individual attributes. Some are indeed capable of assuming adult responsibilities. If society's responsibility is to enable children to become full and contributing members of society, it is necessary to consider whether this is best accomplished through a restrictive atmosphere or an atmosphere of freedom.19

The "equality section" of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, further puts into question society's right to arbitrarily restrict the rights and freedoms of children and young people. It is not yet clear, however, how the courts will interpret Section.

The issue of children's rights was examined in British Columbia in 1975 by the Royal Commission on Family and Children's Law. The Commission recommended new legislation containing a statement of twelve rights of children. Included are the rights to health care, parental support and guidance and the right to be informed of their (children's) rights. This recommendation, however, was not adopted into law. The complete text is set out in table II

At the international level, a proposition was put forward by Poland in 1979, the International Year of the Child, that an international convention on children's rights be developed. Consequently, a working group, in which Canada was an active member, prepared a draft convention which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on November 20, 1989.20 The nature of its adoption stipulated that, before it could come into full force, it had to be ratified by twenty state governments. This having been accomplished, the Convention on the Rights of the Child came into effect on the 2nd of September, 1990.

The convention groups children's rights under the headings of "Survival", "Protection", and "Development". It serves as recognition within the international community that the responsibility for the physical, emotional and developmental well-being of children rests, not only with the caregiver of children, but with governments, as well.

As of July, 1991, there have been over 60 countries which have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Although signed by our Prime Minister in May of 1990, Canada is not yet one of the countries to have ratified the document. Canada's process for ratifying such documents tends to be time-consuming, due primarily to the federal system of government. Ratification is expected by the end of 1991. It will undoubtably provide some much needed leadership and guidance, at both the national and international level, concerning the rights of children.

Those in favour of reform recognize that there are no easy answers to the question of what rights should be accorded those under the age of majority. Given the above discussion, however, a strong argument can be made for a more flexible approach. Such an approach may favour according rights to children based on their level of maturity and on the extent to which they are able to bear responsibilities which are commensurate with those rights.21

Such an approach to the determination of rights requires wisdom and discernment. Nonetheless, in order to develop in children a healthy respect for human rights, it is necessary to examine the manner in which adult society communicates respect for the dignity and worth of its children and young people.


Canadians have made considerable advancements in this past century in regard to human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international conventions which have followed it have established human rights standards for all nations to follow. Giving effect to human rights, however, is more problematic. One of the difficulties stems from the fact that many rights are not absolute, requiring that a balance be achieved between the rights of each member of society. Attempting to decide how best to achieve this balance is a challenge often met with uncertainty, controversy and even resistance.

A further difficulty in the embracing of human rights has been the reluctance by certain groups with power and privilege in society to recognize and co-operate in the elimination of the inequity and oppression, of other groups.

The establishment of international standards of human rights and of human rights legislation has marked a step forward in society's recognition of human rights. Ensuring that such standards and laws are implemented effectively will require continual commitment and evaluation. There are many challenges ahead, and we, as a society, have both the opportunity and the obligation to educate ourselves and others about the means of meeting these challenges.


table I

Plain Language Version (UNICEF)

Principle 1 All children have the right to what follows, no matter what their race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, or where they were born or who they were born to.
Principle 2 You have the special right to grow up in a healthy and normal way, free and with dignity
Principle 3 You have a right to a name and to be a member of a country.
Principle 4 You have the right to good food, housing and medical care.
Principle 5 You have the right to special care if handicapped in any way.
Principle 6 You have the right to love and understanding, preferably from parents, but from the government where you have no parent.
Principle 7 You have the right to go to school for free, to play, and to have
Principle 8 You have the right always to be among the first to get help.
Principle 9 You have the right not to be harmed and not to be hired for work until old enough.


table II
Statement of Children's Rights22
  1. The right to food, clothing and housing in order to ensure good health and personal development.
  2. The right to an environment free from physical abuse, exploitation and degrading treatment
  3. The right to health care necessary to promote physical and mental health and to remedy illness.
  4. The right to reside with parents and siblings except where it is in the best interests of the child and family members for the child to reside elsewhere.
  5. The right to parental and adult support, guidance and continuity in the child's life.
  6. The right to an education which will ensure every child the opportunity to reach and exercise his or her full potential.
  7. The right to play and recreation.
  8. The right to be consulted in decisions related to guardianship, custody and determination of status.
  9. The right to independent counseling and legal assistance in relation to all decisions affecting guardianship, custody, or a determination of status.
  10. The right to a competent interpreter where language or a disability is a barrier in relation to all decisions affecting guardianship, custody, or a determination of status.
  11. The right to an explanation of all decisions affecting guardianship, custody, or a determination of status.
  12. The right to be informed of the rights of children and to have them applied and enforced.

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