The Human Rights Law Centre recently launched a Equality Law Reform website, www.equalitylaw.org.au, which feature a series of Guest Blogs. This is the first. From time immemorial, human beings have thirsted for justice. Our pursuit of this ideal has necessarily translated into a long and difficult search for truth, impartiality and, ultimately, equality. For, as Alexis de Toqueville has said, equality is the foundation upon which all other rights are built.
As we look to existing human rights, it is essential that our focus be on equality. For if equality is a controlling principle, our approach to this ideal is telling. If equality does not shape all other rights, then other rights can only be symbolic, devoid of true meaning. Equality is the most powerful tool for the advancement of rights. And the search for equality is, indeed, a human rights issue.
Equality is important to all of us because of our deep-seated desire for justice. Inequality is injustice. And from inequality and injustice flows oppression. Inequality fosters hate, social unrest, wars and revolutions as well as many other ills in societal and private relationships. We presently have such examples unraveling before our eyes in the social unrest in the Middle-East.
Oppression can have no place in the society we are struggling to mould for our children and grandchildren.
Though ‘globalization’ is the current buzzword, we must remember that the international dialogue about equality has been taking place for many, many years. Indeed the notion of equality is an ancient one.
While equality has taken on different meanings over the centuries, it has matured as the societies we live in became more conscious and self-aware. Indeed, the notion of equality is constantly being recast, as we become increasingly cognisant that the constituent elements of society do not conform to white male-dominated values and power structures.
Equality is gaining recognition as an important issue throughout the world. In our global village, equality is an issue that concerns and affects us all. The revitalized international commitment to equality is apparent in a number of areas. The principle of equality is embodied in international documents as the Universal Declaration of Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to name only a few. It is the dominant theme of new constitutions such as those in South Africa, Canada and India. The value and imperative of equality must also be central to the Australian Government’s ‘consolidation’ of national anti-discrimination laws.
Growing international links are influencing and changing judicial decisions particularly at the level of apex courts throughout the world. Reference to international law and human rights instruments by courts in discharging their constitutional mandate do strengthen and develop a common language of equality through human rights.
The rich, contextual understanding of equality emphasizes dignity and respect for all. It recognizes that true equality requires substantive change and accommodation rather than simply formalistic egalitarian treatment. (See the Declaration of the Principles of Equality.)
In this sense, substantive equality recognizes that equality is not ‘being the same’ but is instead about taking stock of differences. Equality is about promoting an equal sense of self-worth. It is about treating people with equal concern, equal respect and equal consideration. In Canada, these are the values that underlie equality and which have shaped our jurisprudence in human rights.
Speaking the language of equality will ensure justice for all, a better world for all.
Claire L’Heureux-Dubé is a Judge in Residence, Laval University, Faculty of Law, Quebec, Canada and a retired judge of the Supreme Court of Canada.