Social Justice and the Environment

Informally, there have been assumed to be three waves of international human rights law. [1] The idea being that each level of rights prompted a struggle to be recognized as one.

  • First generation rights include civil and political rights such as the right to vote, freedom of religion, freedom of speech etc.
  • Second generation rights are what we know as socioeconomic rights- embodied in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights- are those such as the right to housing, food, an education, employment and so on.
  • Third generation rights have included the right to development, communication and sustainability.

I want to address the right to a healthy environment/sustainability. Due to the fact that human rights are human-centric, human rights law cannot accord rights on animals or objects or concepts. The environment itself does not have any human rights.

But the definition included in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Report on Climate Change and Human Rights infers that the environment necessitates protection due to its impact on the rights of humans.[2]

Can a dangerous environment can violate human rights?

Environment and Rights
The OHCHR addresses climate change and the state obligation to protect the environment (which encompasses the protection of the human rights of individuals impacted by the environment in a harmful way).
This is where the opinions of human rights advocates and environmental advocates split: does human dependance on the environment require that it be protected or should it be protected on accord of its own virtue?
If there were no humans, should the environment be protected?
But of course, some human rights advocates say, it should be protected but not by human rights law.
If you ask Handl, he’ll say that human rights can conflict with environmental protection (think: development)
I’m digressing from the point. I didn’t want to focus on environmental protections on a macro level (although the above serves well as a short introduction).

Environmental Protection on the Ground Level

Do you ever throw paper into the bin? Perfectly recyclable paper into the bin? If you do, do you feel a sense of guilt? Has the message of sustainability been socially ingrained in you yet? What about recycling when you’re at work? If your office is like most workplaces, you’ll have a blue box right next to your desk for paper. But what about glass and plastic? Do you throw your microwavable container away after you’ve finished up the fettuccine? Or do you not buy microwavable meals because you focus on avoiding processed food?

This article has been inspired by a disregard for the environment on the part of those working in social justice. The argument being that they’d rather spend their time advocating on behalf of individuals who have urgent needs. This is understandable not entirely convincing. It falls in line with other such excuses (I’m a mother of three, I’m a lawyer who puts in 80 hour weeks, I’m a night shift worker and I never sleep so I cannot find the time to recycle).

This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black since I, as well, have too often rolled up the newspaper and chucked it in the little grey can at the foot of my bed rather than making the trek to the designated compartment in the kitchen. Yet, I’m the first to be affronted by the indifference shown by the general public towards the conditions facing single mothers. Apathy is not supposed to be a social justice advocate trait.

In terms of non-profits, the areas that seem to be making the most progress in sustainability are the fields of food security, health, indigenous rights and animal rights. Indigenous groups are quick to recognize that environmental degradation is pestilent to the land that they’ve spent centuries sustaining themselves with and charities in the promotion of health and nutrition recognize the benefits of locally produced food. I was recently speaking to the ED of a food bank who expressed that Kraft meals are a thing of the past and that food sustainability is in. Similarly, animal rights advocates promote protectionist policies as the current situation is causing a depletion in the animal population. Perhaps all of these groups have an ulterior motive for advocating for the environment but at least they are making strides.

Social justice advocates are scarce at environmental rallies.A project manager at an illustrious non-profit claims that she loves the arts but can’t support the arts as she feels that the funding could be better utilized at anti-poverty organization. Despite acknowledging that her own sentiments are silly, she has consciously removed herself from their supporter base. Does the same train of thought transfer to the environment even though we all know that the progression of the world as it is could result is mass catastrophes that leave anything we’ve ever dealt with in the dust (quite literally)?

Why aren’t we supporting environmental groups when issues of contention come up? Why do we scream in fury when we hear of FGM but we don’t make a squeak when mass deforestation is taking place in our own backyards? If we’re harm reductionists, why do we promote studies that serve as evidence in favour of the low barrier method but we don’t give credit to the science that confirms climate change?

I was in the practice of ignoring environmental issues in the newspaper until (very) recently. I accepted that conservation was essential but I didn’t comprehend the role that I had to play. I’d taken ownership over violence against women and children, poverty, multiculturalism, prisoner rehabilitation, other social justice issues, assuming them to be my issues and what I needed to focus on. I realize now that this was an overly simplistic viewpoint. We all need to do our parts. Despite the perception of being too busy to deviate from work, we need to acknowledge the following:

  1. That the environment will impact human rights including the individuals that we advocate for, thus it is our concern
  2. The environment should be protected by virtue of its own self, thus it is our concern

We won’t get there in a day but social justice advocates should be on the right side of history and we will be… once we get in the habit of it.

[1] I do want to emphasize the word informal because the three ‘waves’ of human rights are a point of contention, they usually lead into the debate about positive rights vs negative rights and whether they exist. I’m not claiming to be in complete agreement with this model but I am using it here for simplicity’s sake.
[2] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/HRAndClimateChange/Pages/Study.aspx

Employment Equity is a Dirty Term

We think of it as being a form of reverse sexism inflicted on innocent, hard-working men whose only crime was to be born a man. And the fact that women are being penalized for being women at a tremendous scale is oft unuttered. It’s as if the objectives of these policies have been forgotten- as if they are purposeless and unnecessary.

This is not an abstruse idea. For instance, take the example of the Employment Equity Act which was implemented in order to improve conditions for individuals receiving an unfair disadvantage within the federal employee system:

The purpose of the EEA is to ensure that no person is denied employment opportunities and benefits for reasons unrelated to ability. It requires employers to correct disadvantages in the workplace experienced by members of the four designated groups:
women;
Aboriginal peoples;
persons with disabilities; and
visible minorities.
In addition, employers must implement the principle that employment equity means more than treating people in the same way; it also requires special measures and the accommodation of differences.[1]

Quotas and regulations such as this may convey the impression that they are discriminatory towards the able-bodied, white male who believes that he can do a comparable or even better job than the visible minority woman who was given preferential treatment based on her class. In doing so, he ignores the years of bias that have taken a toll on the latter individual. We forget than the man was brought up with an advantage that he was given when he was born. We should take the time to make him aware of this. We need to have a discussion about why employment equity exists.

The dialogue began with an article written by a friend of mine in the newspaper that decried employment discrimination and described her personal experiences dealing with the issue. This prompted a response from another reader asserting that, due to the uptake of affirmative action, men are at a disadvantage now. I duly responded with my own take on the socioeconomic position of women today and resolved that despite affirmative action policies, women are inadvertently challenged with inequitable circumstances in the workplace.

I believe that a conversation regarding the importance of affirmative action needs to be had. We are long past the days when women’s liberation was soundly understood by most; the objectives being endorsed by people of all walks of life. Today, feminism is constantly confused and warped within various forms of media which is why it should be explained and made accessible to the greater public.

A male friend asked me what my conception of feminism looked like. He had been hearing messages about the subject leading up to International Women’s Day and after some soul searching, I responded:

Feminism is the idea that all people are equal and that this equality should be fulfilled by instigating social change, dismantling patriarchal structures that oppress individuals who are not white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender, middle aged males and deposing of the direct and systemic barriers that they may face on account of not belonging to the dominant class of society.

In short, the barriers that people face should be rectified in order to compensate for harm done.

While it may seem as though the gender gap can be accounted for based on the choices that women independently make (choosing to have children, choosing to pursue a low-paying career…), research has shown that they don’t always have power over their own circumstances. For instance, girls grow up primed to pursue subjects in the arts and caregiving, which fall on the lower ends of the earnings scale, while boys are encouraged to pursue high-wage technical occupations in engineering and science.[2] And, while men and women both conjointly make decisions to have children, women are the ones who suffer from the so-called ‘baby penalty’ which shuts the door on future career opportunities.[3]

The bias isn’t always systemic. Direct discrimination is entwined in the nature of corporate culture. Identical resumes, under both male and female names, are more likely to be called back for an interview when featuring a male title. Women are judged to be less competent[4], less worthy of being promoted[5] and possessing fewer leadership skills as compared to men regardless of their true abilities.[6] They suffer from a sticky floor (a tendency to be trapped in lower-level positions), a mid-level bottleneck (a tendency to be trapped in middle-management) and a glass ceiling (a tendency to be unable to move towards executive positions).[7]

Unfortunately, even the practices targeting the alleviation of discrimination can backfire. For instance, regulation requiring companies to give maternity leave to women discourages employers from hiring them. The fact that men are being offered parental leave is negligible as many simply do not take them which renders them as desirable employees compared to female candidates (who may end up taking a leave at the cost of the company). Similarly, the enactment of employment equity can be cause for resentment among colleagues.

This is why employment equity is so essential to the pursuit of gender equality and why the dispersion of information pertaining to these facts is equivalently as important. We need to teach employers about the direct and systemic discrimination faced by women and ask them to question themselves and their organizations as to whether they are treating their employees fairly and, if not, how they can take steps to remedy the current situation in an equitable way.


[1] http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/e-5.401/FullText.html

[2] www.truechild.org/STEMresearch

[3] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jomf.12086/abstract

[4] http://www.forbes.com/sites/85broads/2011/04/14/why-is-it-that-women-are-seen-as-less-competent/

[5] http://hbr.org/2010/09/why-men-still-get-more-promotions-than-women/ar/1

[6] http://www.astd.org/Publications/Blogs/ASTD-Blog/2011/07/UK-Women-Seen-as-Less-Qualified-and-Capable-Leaders-Than-Men

[7] http://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/diversity/academic/Gender_&_Racial_Differentials_In_Promotions_2009.pdf

The Downtown Community and Drug Treatment Courts

The reason this blog has been blessed with the privilege of sustaining two posts in their entirety within a week is because I’m extremely enthusiastic about having the marvelous opportunity to visit the Provincial Court of British Columbia and Downtown Community Court with some fellow volunteers and staff of the John Howard Society of British Columbia. I arrived early in the morning which allowed me to spend some time loitering around Gastown (which I haven’t seen since Christmas)- it’s my favourite part of Vancouver, I had to mention it. I arrived at the courthouse and an introduction was provided by a representative of the Justice Education Society who gave us a quick rundown of the criminal justice system in the province (echoes of my criminology days) and the different types of cases heard in the provincial court, community court and drug treatment court respectively. The Downtown Community Court

At its core, the community court is about partnership and problem solving. It’s about creating new relationships, both within the justice system and with health and social services, community organizations, area residents, merchants, faith communities and schools… The community court is about testing new ways to reduce crime and improve public safety. It deals with offenders more quickly through a more co-ordinated and informed response.

This court is located on the backside of the provincial court, although through a separate entrance. There is definitely an advantage to being located so close to Main Street and I couldn’t help but notice the symbolic significance of this layout- it serves as an informal, backdoor way of dealing with repeat offenders who are wrought with problematic histories which often include mental illness and drug addiction. As our JES representative pressed, many of these individuals ended up being charged for theft of petty items such as cheese- which have a high resale value (reference to the low-cost pizza slice outlets scattered over the downtown core). A justice system that treats them like cookie-cutter criminals would be detrimental to their well-being along with that of the general public especially taking into consideration the systemic problems that are prevalent around the area. Hence, the community court. A somewhat-casual court system that complies with its rules but promotes an understanding, harm-reduction response to such crimes. We were lucky enough to visit while the court was presided by the Honourable Judge Thomas Gove, who initially proposed the creation of the court in Vancouver. Seeing him call up the accused and communicate directly to them was remarkable to see. There’s no doubt that this courtroom maintained a supportive and accessible atmosphere. I cringe at the thought of how an old, mentally ill panhandler would have fared in regular court. While we did notice how ‘disorganized’ the court seemed, we all agreed that it was well suited the area it served where restricted time slots and airtight rules would only result in further unnecessary legal ramifications for an already marginalized population. More information about the process can be found here along with some helpful videos that give you the gist of how the court works. The Drug Treatment Court of Vancouver The drug treatment court is a model that has proved to work miles in helping drug addicted offenders recover effectively (see here). It is used worldwide and I was surprised to learn that it carried the support of the current federal government. This probably the most remarkable thing I’ve heard today, but, as one of the lawyers (who kindly consented to being barraged with our questions) asserted, the science is practically unwavering. The court seemed more of a pep rally than actual proceedings but this shouldn’t be mistaken as being lenient on offenders. Judge Dillon emphasized that rehabilitation and recovery is an immensely demanding process and requires considerable sacrifice (which is monitored by way of frequent drug tests and stringent conditions). The prosecutor determines selection criteria and only a few individuals are permitted into this program which requires weekly court visits and is bolstered by rewards and praise for compliance. Crown counsel and defense collaborate to create a workable action plan for the accused and most of the decisions are made in a pretrial meeting between the counsel, judge and various case workers since hearing the occasional negative feedback could prove to be detrimental to the recovery of the individual who is encouraged to consider the members of the court as allies. The best part of the experience was seeing how, even while sitting in an adversarial system, all the counsel in the drug treatment and community courts seemed to work together to devise practical solutions. Aside from my own observations, more information about this court can be found here. We also managed to sit in on a robbery case and talk to some industrious Native Courtworkers who described the challenges faced by aboriginal offenders and the alternative justice measures that have been put into place in order to take their circumstances into account. I’m a large supporter of restorative justice so this element of the dialogue was very interesting to me- especially when she revealed the existence of a specialized First Nations court (guess who wants to drop by for a visit?) Overall, I was very grateful for the opportunity. It’s quite fascinating to see the things I’ve been reading about put into action. There’s always hope in progressive policy research… and good results too.

World Toilet Day

The reason I find it easy to talk about this because of its tongue-in-cheek nature but, let’s be honest, we take our toilets (and the humour that goes along with it) for granted.  When we really start thinking about toilets, we soon come to the realization that they are very important instruments to the fulfillment of human rights :) the right to life, health, an adequate standard of living…
Rights aside, the economic benefits of providing people with toilets are plentiful. It also encourages gender equity in education. Improving sanitation is a step towards providing people with health and dignity. Currently, over 2.5 billion people in the world don’t have access to clean toilets.
For more information, visit the World Toilet Organization- an NGO that supports global sanitation.

Juvenile Justice

We talked about children in the criminal justice system today. I’m a big proponent of restorative justice and that heavily played into my outlook on the topic of discussion.
Additionally, my criminological background has given me certain insight into why crime occurs and the sort of individuals who cause and are victims of crimes. When it comes to juvenile offending, these are just some things that I know to be true…

  • Youth crime is largely a result of socioeconomic factors
  • The levels of crime committed by male youth peak in their teenage and early adult years and steadily declines afterwards
  • Punishment and incarceration are not effective deterrence and, very often, they lead to a cycle of disruption and social exclusion in a child’s life- this is difficult to recover from

Keeping this in mind, it’s important to acknowledge that imprisoning young offenders does nothing for us, nothing for them and nothing for society as a whole. If anything, it traps them and hinders their development. We cannot raise active and law-abiding citizens within the justice system that we have today.
The biggest concern lies within a marginalized population- the poor (usually minority) child who is growing up in a stressful environment with inadequate care. This is the child that suffers the most from arbitrary and damaging judicial decisions and processes.
These concepts are difficult for the public at large to understand. It’s easier to vilify offending children and their parents instead of taking a reconciliatory and restorative approach to these issues.
During the Vancouver riots in 2011 following the loss of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team from the Stanley Cup playoffs, there was a frenzied witch-hunt of sorts that targeted teenagers and young adults for their participation in the riots.
These types of scenarios perpetuate the modern impression of youth as dangerous and immoral. Portraying them as deviants, in this fashion, does nothing but exclude them from mainstream society and alienate them- which, understandably, doesn’t help discourage them from a life of crime.
This is one of the reasons why I was impressed to see CommCRC’s General Comment 10 which emphasized the importance of raising awareness and diminishing the perception that youth are troublemakers and generally harmful towards others. We cannot ask youth to obey the law and, at the same time, demonize them in the social sphere. State, individual and group actions that strive to pursue and fulfill the committee’s recommendations are commendable:

Children who commit offenses are often subject to negative publicity in the media, which contributes to a discriminatory and negative stereotyping of these children and often of children in general. This negative presentation or criminalization of child offenders is often based on misrepresentation and/or misunderstanding of the causes of juvenile delinquency, and results regularly in a call for a tougher approach (e.g. zero-tolerance, three strikes and you are out, mandatory sentences, trial in adult courts and other primarily punitive measures). To create a positive environment for a better understanding of the root causes of juvenile delinquency and a rights-based approach to this social problem, the States parties should conduct, promote and/or support educational and other campaigns to raise awareness of the need and the obligation to deal with children alleged of violating the penal law in accordance with the spirit and the letter of CRC. In this regard, the States parties should seek the active and positive involvement of members of parliament, NGOs and the media, and support their efforts in the improvement of the understanding of a rights-based approach to children who have been or are in conflict with the penal law. It is crucial for children, in particular those who have experience with the juvenile justice system, to be involved in these awareness-raising efforts.
(Source: CRC.C.GC.10/96)

If we want our children and youth to stop committing crimes, we need to engage them in public discourse and start propagating a new conception of young people among adults- one that comprehensively identifies and acknowledges the different stages of childhood from a developmental perspective. This is incredibly important if we hope to raise principled citizens who can contribute positively to the community.

International Law versus Political Science (Part I)

From my Human Rights Law book, an excerpt by Hina Jilani, an advocate from Pakistan:

As a lawyer and a human rights defender, I have frequently had to choose between political action, by way of advocacy or protest, and legal action, by seeking to assert rights through legal process.
One of the primary considerations in making that choice has always been: what is the best way of linking the search for justice, and the result achieved to respect for human rights? Another consideration is how to maximize public consciousness about the interconnectedness of a public debate and the persons who suffer the consequences of human rights violations.

This held particular interest to me as since, in the past, I’ve focused my actions and research on politics and activism, it was acknowledging the significance of the legal process that drove me to consider an LL.M. instead of an M.A. I feel that it is beneficial for those working in human rights to have an understanding of both the former and the latter, in the way that Jilani does.
Here are some of the other things I’ve taken a note of:
I’ve found it extremely striking how a lot of the discourse so far has involved the United States. I did expect an Anglo-American centric view of human rights law but I’d always assumed that Europe was as important, if not more important, than the United States when it came to the development of human rights.
I was right but only to an extent.
Throughout my undergraduate degree, I had accepted that the version of history that was taught in my classes had an American bias but I assumed that this was because Canada didn’t have much to offer in terms of international political science. All the authors I’ve ever read were American (excepting maybe Iggy) and, unless we were taking a course specific to Canadian politics, it was assumed that whatever we would be discussing in the course would involve a lot of American thinking.
Another running theme, which is quite obvious, has been the tension between state sovereignty and international human rights law. Of course, I had always known that it was an issue. But since I never really concentrated on the law aspect (my degree usually dealt with theory and specific occurrences of human rights abuses), this has changed the paradigm with which I see international law.
The East-West divide between civil/political rights and economic/social/cultural rights is also something that I was previously aware of but I didn’t understand the full impact of until now.
The readings are extremely thorough and I’m learning a lot from them despite the single-paned windows that allow the jubilant shouts of inebriated freshmen to echo through at all hours of the night.
I feel like I’m at a little bit of a disadvantage academically since I spent 8 months letting my brain to turn to mush but that’s not a good enough excuse since most LL.M. students have waited a year or more before undertaking this degree.

Children are cute but is childhood a social construct?

Ironic really, since today was the day I audited the Rights of the Child module. It was the end of the day and I was trying to convince some of my fellow LL.M. candidates to attend it with me.
I’m bored of child rights
Not really interested…
Okay, given that today’s class was just a brief history lesson, aren’t child’s rights supposed to be the fun part of human rights? The part where we can all legitimately get fired up and morally appalled at the horrific ways that children are treated around the world?
Because children do have a right to be protected. Because they are a vulnerable demographic. Because childhood is an innate part of your life that holds a special quality.
Well, perhaps not really.
The conception of childhood has always varied from culture to culture and even the modern western paradigm of today hasn’t come to a consensus as to when a child becomes an adult.
At 18, they can vote. At 15, they can live independently. At 19, they can drink. At 16, they can drive. At 12, they can be found criminally responsible.
The problem doesn’t end with the arbitrary numbers that we have forced on children as a way to questionably determine their physical, mental and emotional maturity, we have abstract ideas about what children are and how we perceive them in any case.
For instance, we separate children from adults, they play different games and wear different clothes. We have an idea of them as innocent and naive, incapable of doing harm. We know that children aren’t rational actors so we protect them from themselves by suspending some of their rights until they mature.
But what I found most interesting of all is how we bear the burden of this responsibility.
I keep finding the notion tied to bodily rights and freedom- why is it the duty of human beings to take care of and support other human beings (even if the latter human being is their offspring)?
John Locke extrapolates about the love and affection that a parent has for a child but he never goes so far as to deem it a duty, for isn’t “paternalism [an] odious tyranny” (Archer, 2004)? Of course, the main idea being that as much as children need guidance and guardianship, adults deserve their freedom just the same.
This is relevant in terms of what quite a few of my friends struggle with. They don’t want to have children and resent the society that inflicts parenthood upon them.
In the ideal world, I do want children. And, aside from the children’s rights aspect, I find myself mulling over the right of adults to not have children or to take any responsibility for any children at all.
Of course, this is a small part of the debate concerning the history of child rights but it’s a compelling one nonetheless.