Policy dialogue examines the issue of competing human rights

Over the last decade, the concept of human rights has taken on increasing complexity in nations around the world, in large part because of the way it is viewed. There are times when to acknowledge the rights of one individual or group directly affects the access to human rights of another.

Such competing human rights can play out in many places, from the University classroom to the international stage, where groups actively promote a particular view of rights recognition that may hinder access to rights of others within the community. How do groups, organizations, governments, human rights commissions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academics approach this multi-faceted issue?

That question is at the heart of a two-day policy dialogue starting today at York University. "Towards a Framework to Address Competing Rights Claims" is a partnership between the York Centre for Public Policy & Law, the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Centre for Human Rights at York University. It will bring academics, activists, representatives from human rights commissions from across Canada, non-governmental organizations, governments and special interest groups to York University where they will talk openly about the sometimes thorny issue of competing human rights.

York Professor Lesley Jacobs (left), director of the York Centre for Public Policy & Law, is serving as the dialogue’s organizer along with Professor Lorne Foster, director of York’s Graduate Program in Public Policy, Administration & Law Program. Jacobs, a professor of law & society and political science, has long had an active research interest in competing human rights. "In the last 5 to 10 years, increasingly in Canada there has been a perception that rights conflicts and human rights commissions have been struggling with competing human rights," says Jacobs. "There have been trade-offs between free speech and rights, and concerns about hate or defamation or discriminatory speech. Issues that come to mind include the debate over same sex marriage, religious freedom and disability rights."

The surprising thing in Canada is that the country’s human rights commissions, many of which have existed for 40 or 50 years, do not have policies on conflicting rights, says Jacobs. "So when the Ontario Human Rights Commission approached us [the York Centre for Public Policy & Law] to develop a policy dialogue on competing human rights, we saw an opportunity to bring together different stakeholders who could work together to lay the groundwork for the development of future policies on competing human rights."

The policy dialogue, while closed to the community, will be broadcast on a large format LCD screen in the Vari Hall Lecture Hall D today and tomorrow. For Jacobs, the broadcast offers a wonderful opportunity for students, faculty and staff to watch and learn about competing human rights and the power of open dialogue to create policy.

"The vision we had when developing this conference was to bring leading stakeholders from a wide range of affected communities – faith communities, persons with disabilities, minority groups, same sex rights, all sorts of NGOs and civil society organizations – together with academics who work on rights conflicts from a wide range of perspectives, human rights lawyers and people from human rights commissions across the country to talk about competing human rights," says Jacobs.

The two-day dialogue, set up in the format of a conference, will start at a relatively abstract level and then move into discussions of the legal, non-court based and adjudicated approaches to rights conflicts. The final part of the two-day event will look at competing human rights as more of a place for social policy than jurisprudence.

"That is the logic of the dialogue," says Jacobs. "The importance of having many different voices and viewpoints contributing to the conversation and understanding of competing human rights."

The dialogue will examine a host of different topics. The first day’s session begins with a discussion of the philosophical approaches to competing rights and participants will then move on to discuss the legal frameworks of human rights, what a conflict is and how it can be resolved and competing rights in context. They will finish the day with a discussion of creed and competing rights.

On Saturday, participants will begin the day by discussing the competing legal perspectives on competing rights. Following this session they will talk about the social policy approach to competing human rights and the different societal perspectives. Afternoon sessions will examine the media’s role in competing rights policy and a final session will bring all of the discussions together to amass a potential framework for policy on competing human rights. The full program and session abstracts are available as an online PDF on the York Centre for Public Policy & Law Web site.

Human rights are based in the values that societies live by and these values can be different between one society and another, says Jacobs. "A student may need a Seeing Eye dog to assist him with getting around the university. However, what about the student who has a severe allergy to dogs who sits in the same classroom? Both individuals have rights and these rights compete."

How society deals with such competing human rights will be the core of many future conversations, says Jacobs.

Final outcomes of the two-day dialogue include a future publication of the different papers and perspectives presented, and Jacobs hopes the dialogue will also mark the start of a series of events developed with a goal to create future policies on competing human rights.

For more information on the York Centre for Public Policy & Law, the Centre for Human Rights and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, visit their Web sites.

Additional support for this two-day dialogue was provided by the York Centre for Research on Work & Society, the Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, the Office of the Provost and the Law Foundation of Ontario.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor