Looking for the right words: Human rights and MCC’s advocacy work

Human Rights Day was observed this past Monday, December 10, and brought with it a flurry of announcements:

  •  MCC Canada’s coalition partner KAIROS launched a week of celebration with a slideshow “commemorating the courageous work of our human rights partners in Canada and the Global South.”
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations launched a new “Right to Food” website, noting that “the right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”
  • An opposition MP launched a Facebook campaign to build support for Bill C-323, The International Promotion and Protection of Human Rights Act (IPPHRA), which aims to make it possible for Canadian courts to hear claims regarding the human rights violations perpetrated by Canadian citizens and corporations operating outside Canada.
  • Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird issued a statement affirming that “the promotion and protection of human rights is a cornerstone of [Canada’s] principled foreign policy.” The minister went on to say: “It is our common duty to defend the vulnerable, to challenge the aggressor, and to protect and promote human rights and human dignity abroad.”

I could go on! In any case, I was reminded once again that MCC’s advocacy efforts have lagged behind the embrace of human rights language that is evident not only in Canadian society, but in MCC’s program work in a variety of contexts.Mennonites and Human Rights conference

At a conference on “Mennonites and Human Rights” earlier this fall, I gave an overview of the occasions when the phrase “human rights” or even the word “right” has appeared in communication from MCC to the Government of Canada.

Over the past three decades, these occasions have not only been relatively infrequent, but rights language has tended to be used as part of a larger appeal for the government to take action to support particular communities that MCC works with. Rights have not been appealed to as the central rationale for this action. A few examples where this is the case include letters on Colombia, Palestine/Israel, and Sudan.

To be sure, at times MCC has explicitly supported a strong human rights emphasis in Canadian foreign policy. For example, in a submission to a Parliamentary Committee in 2005 we even encouraged the government to include “religious freedom in its human rights work.” Perhaps MCC should take some credit for the current government’s decision to establish an Office of Religious Freedom?!

However, there have only been two cases where MCC has repeatedly appealed to human rights in making an argument to the government: in defending the rights of conscientious objectors to war, and in defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

KAIROS Saskatchewan

This lack of both frequency and substance becomes all the more obvious when it is contrasted with the advocacy efforts of coalitions that MCC belongs to. Beyond the example of KAIROS, one could look to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which, like the FAO, has made the right to food the organizing principle for their advocacy initiatives in recent years.

Or one could look to the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC), a coalition of around one hundred voluntary sector organizations working globally to achieve sustainable human development. CCIC has long embraced a rights-based approach to development—an approach that may now conflict with the apparent inclination of the government to see the furthering of Canadian economic interests included in the mandate of CIDA.

What does this disconnect between MCC’s communication with the government and the predominance of human rights language among partners, coalitions, and the government mean?

Perhaps this disconnect should cause us to question MCC’s political savvy-ness! If MCC were to make more use of rights-based arguments in our advocacy, however, what are the potential pitfalls that need to be avoided?

Alternatively, perhaps this disconnect should remind MCC that we need to be clearer about why we have chosen to use other kinds of arguments. But if this answer seems to ring true, how then do we work with—and speak authentically for—partners who use a rights-based framework to guide their work?

Hopefully the answer will be clearer by December 10, 2013…

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

One thought

  1. Our work at MCC is rooted and grounded in a particular faith tradition (Anabaptist Christian) and there is a lot of particular language that we associate with it. Words like discipleship, Christlikeness, peacemakers, Holy Spirit, forgiveness, salvation and many more. The work of translation into other languages – such as the language of rights – is both important and precarious. Sometimes it feels as though the effort just doesn’t sound right and something gets “lost in translation”. We have to work at both ends of this question: becoming good tranlators and attending to what might be getting lost in the process. Thanks for your thoughts and your work towards clarity.

    Steve Plenert

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