UN Special Rapporteur Visits Canada, 15-26 September 2003

Posted 2003-10-14 by Marlène D. Balthazar | Jurisfemme Publications – Volume 22, No. 3, Fall 2003

At the invitation of the Canadian government, the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Mr. Doudou Diene, visited Canada from 15-26 September 2003. During his stay, the former Senegalese diplomat and UNESCO delegate went to Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax, Vancouver and Montreal and met with the government representatives, individuals, organizations, and groups interested in the issues of racial discrimination and respect for human rights.

In Montreal, as part of a meeting held by the Institut d'Études Internationales at the Université du Québec à Montréal on September 16, Mr. Diene spoke on strategies for fighting racism, racial discrimination, and intolerance.

Racism and discrimination persist today despite significant progress in the field of human rights, Mr. Diene stressed. The situation has in fact worsened since 11 September 2001, both in Canada and around the world. And with the advent of Internet, more subtle forms of racism have appeared. Certain cultures are being demonized, and cultural superiority theories are raising their ugly head once again.

It seems that the legal strategy adopted by numerous countries to combat racism and discrimination has not yielded the intended results. The adoption of human rights charters and domestic laws to implement and enforce international conventions against racism is indeed necessary, but it has proven totally insufficient to combat this scourge of the planet. Mr. Diene cited the case of South Africa; there, oppressors and victims joined forces to draft various laws and regulations, but these were insufficient to grant full equality to the former victims of apartheid. He congratulated the Government of Canada on its rights charter and its multiculturalism and human rights laws, but argued that the legalistic strategy for combating racism will not suffice by itself; an intellectual strategy is necessary in order to pull this evil out by the roots.

For Mr. Diene, such an intellectual strategy consists in combing through history to identify the historical, cultural, and psychological roots of racism. In so doing, the definition of culture itself must come in for a reworking. It must no longer be seen as the embodiment of a dominant ideology but, instead, must allow for the expression of all the cultures in a society. Nearly all of the world's recent conflicts can be seen to be pervaded by a pernicious concept of identity in which this last is defined by a dominant group and becomes a sort of default identity, a referent forced upon the other cultures in question.

These identities must be reconstructed to make them more pluralistic and multicultural. The meeting between two cultures gives rise to cultural tension stemming from ignorance, fear of the unknown, lack of knowledge about the other. This tension can serve as a source of dialogue, as a springboard toward greater rapprochement and openness to the other. It is important to recognize and value cultural specificity in all its forms, to promote universal values, to favor discussion and dialogue among all communities, and to stress the need to live together in peace, for this is the only way to ensure harmonious relations between persons of different cultures.

Such an intellectual strategy will only be effective if it is championed by human rights promoters, thinkers, philosophers, intellectuals, artists, and the scientific community. These and other individuals must reflect on the issues with a view to developing new theories, proposing new ways of living and building a viable multiculturalism that can ensure respect for and self-affirmation of all communities and cultures.

Update

Judge Fred Kovach sentenced Dean Edmondson to a mere two-year house arrest for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old Cree girl. Judge Kovach agreed that in a case such as this, a conditional sentence is rare but stated that he felt given that since the girl was sexually abused before, that she was the sexual aggressor in this case. Two other men were charged in this case but were found not guilty. NAWL and other women's organizations are outraged by Judge Kovach's reasoning in issuing this sentence and encourages women to speak out. The Crown in Saskatchewan is appealing this decision.