Violetta Igneski: An ethical look at human rights
Are ethics and philosophy important to understanding human rights? For 18 years, Commissioner Violetta Igneski has focused on this very intersection. “If I say there is a human right to have our basic needs met, for example, it actually means that someone has a duty to do something about it so I can have my right fulfilled,” explains Igneski.
An associate professor of Philosophy at McMaster University, Igneski teaches and researches human rights, global justice and collective responsibility. She tries to bring nuance to these areas by exploring questions about who has a duty to do something to whom, if human rights are actually going to be substantive things. “I’m lucky enough to have a voice, teach students and share topics that they might not have thought about,” says Igneski. “To think about, for example, do we have obligations to aid other people? Why would I have to sacrifice my interests to help other people? What would that mean?”
Igneski was the first in her family to go to university, and earned her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Toronto. She finds the ability to have such discussions in the classroom enriching. She sees them as a way to advocate for social justice.
“Fulfilling and respecting human rights depends on political and legal structures and institutions, but it’s also important to consider our personal decisions and this brings us into the sphere of ethics,” observes Igneski. Personal decisions, she elaborates, would include how we behave and act towards each other, how we treat other people, and how these actions take place within collective contexts.
“We need to think about human rights at the community, state and international levels, so we can coordinate our efforts and figure out how we can best implement those, and then divide up and allocate the tasks to each of us as individuals,” she says. “It is about asking what is required of me, as an individual in this collective context with other people.”
Igneski extends this idea to consider how research in ethics applies to her role at the OHRC, especially during a global pandemic. One of the things that has become evident during COVID-19 is an increase in people’s general awareness of inequalities in our society.
“These inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” says Igneski. “I think that there seems to be, with this awareness, some positive energy and so, some potential to change things. I see some new understanding of why there are social programs to help people in these situations, and also why they are inadequate.”
Through her role at the OHRC, Igneski hopes to build on this momentum. She wants us all to think about changemaking as we witness the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people living in poverty, or living with disability, on racialized persons and Indigenous peoples.
Igneski also talks about how in 2020, the OHRC released its Policy statement on a human rights-based approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic, published a series of FAQs on rights and obligations, and was vocal about collecting human-rights based data to know the real impacts of this pandemic. Each of these initiatives shows how the OHRC continually examines issues from an intersecting and ethical standpoint.
“Poverty requires a lot more attention, and addressing it is currently a strategic priority of the OHRC. We see so many issues and factors undermining people’s access to healthcare, and poverty happens to overlap with many of these,” observes Igneski. “We have some understanding about the intersecting grounds, but working on communicating them in an effective manner and educating the public is one of the most important roles I see the OHRC playing.”
Igneski brings her applied theoretical knowledge to the OHRC with the hope of working with people on the ground and in the community. In addition to her academic contributions, she has shown her commitment to promoting an environment of respect and inclusion in various professional and administrative capacities, currently serving as Chair of the McMaster Research Ethics Board and Equity Officer in her department. She has authored several research papers on the duty to aid, ethical living and political philosophy. So she continues to live the intersection between ethics and human rights, to the benefit of all Ontarians.