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Jan 09, 2003

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Political tract
Doctoral candidate Michael Markwick's Nov. 28 SFU News article (Is Victoria's Human Rights Policy a Debacle?) is a political tract rather than an academic treatise. As such, it assumes the truth rather than attempting its establishment by logical argument.

Some of the arguments presented by Markwick are unjustified abuse, some are irrelevant, and some, at least in my opinion, are wrong. As unjustified abuse, I include his implication that Gordon Campbell, Geoff Plant et al believe “government is by definition illegitimate.” To suggest that Campbell et al consider all forms of government illegitimate is the kind of ludicrous exaggeration that you might expect from a politician, but not from any conscientious academic in search of the truth.

Even more abusive is the statement that the “Attorney General has dug a mean and dark channel for human rights, treating this area of law as though it is a plastic and malleable fabrication of the legislature, instead of the public expression of those features of human life that circumscribe the powers of politicians.” If an academic chooses to make extreme statements of this kind surely he should be expected to provide supporting evidence. Markwick fails to do so. It is another abusive and unjustified statement that you might expect from a politician. Some of the supporting evidence Markwick does cite is irrelevant to his case for a human rights commission rather than the tribunal proposed by the Campbell government. Pope Paul III's enactment of Sublimus Dei in 1537 “to outlaw any attempt to enslave, plunder, or impede the liberties of [native Indians]” may be, as he claims, the first global human rights statute, but it is not relevant to human rights issues today. We are not involved, in British Columbia today, in slavery, nor in treating peoples as “dumb brutes created for our service.” To imply that this has a bearing on his preference for a human rights commission over the Campbell government's tribunal is ridiculous. Equally irrelevant is Markwick's statement that “human rights do not come from the kindness of princes, a social contract, or attorneys general. They are intrinsic features of persons.” This is true, but it is a good argument for the human rights of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, not for his preference for a human rights commission over a tribunal. Markwick's final irrelevant argument against the tribunal system is that it will be unable to deal with a flood of cases. That remains to be seen and if true, additional resources will need to be devoted to the tribunal. This too, is not a reason for preferring a human rights commission to a tribunal.

The three relevant arguments made by Markwick against the human rights tribunal are, it seems to me, all wrong. He criticizes the tribunal idea because it will deal with human rights violations on a case-by-case basis rather than by addressing what he calls systemic violations of human rights. He does not explain what he means by systemic violations of human rights, but if, his cure involves language and thought police running around the province poking their noses where they don't belong, then I think we would be well advised to deal with human rights violations on a case-by-case basis and forget about his systemic violations.

Markwick also criticizes the Campbell government's tribunal because it is litigious and expensive. He prefers a human rights commission that operates as “an honest broker” outside the legal system. We saw the honest broker system in practice in the Donnelly-Marsden case. I think litigation is worth its costs.

Markwick argues that people without money for lawyers will not have protection against human rights violations under the tribunal system. He finds completely unacceptable the Campbell government's proposal to retain a private organization under contract to the Justice ministry to provide legal advice to complainants, but his opposition is not supported by any valid argument.

Richard Holmes
Professor Emeritus
Simon Fraser University















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