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Human rights commissions and economic and social rights

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Executive Summary

This paper is one of several initiatives by the Ontario Human Rights Commission to explore ways in which human rights commissions can become more involved in protecting and promoting economic and social rights and in implementing international treaties to which Canada is a party. The challenge for human rights commissions is to find ways to maximize the potential of their mandates to promote international standards, including those contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Internationally and, more recently, domestically there is a growing recognition that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. Vulnerable groups protected by human rights legislation are more likely to experience low economic and social status. Poverty is inextricably linked with inequality, particularly for women (especially single mothers and elderly women), Aboriginal persons, racial minorities and persons with disabilities, and so it is becoming increasingly clear that, in order to effectively address the complex experience of those who are disadvantaged, human rights commissions must address social and economic rights to the greatest extent possible.

The goal of this paper is to identify specific measures that can be undertaken by human rights commissions within existing mandates. By way of example, the paper identifies some successes in the areas of policy development and litigation. The paper also explores the concept of “social condition” as a prohibited ground of discrimination as one way that social and economic rights may be protected. The paper highlights Canada’s international obligations, international concerns about Canada’s record in implementing social and economic rights, and problems that have been encountered in attempts to litigate social and economic rights claims before Canadian courts to punctuate the need for human rights commissions to do more.

This paper is a research document prepared by staff of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and is not a Commission approved policy statement. It is hoped that it will provide valuable background information and serve as a resource in the debate around social condition and other measures that can be adopted by commissions within existing mandates.


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