Dealing with workplace harassment, bullying and discrimination to create a respectful workplace




Human Rights is defined as rights that belong to an individual as a consequence of being human. The term came into wide use after World War II, replacing the earlier phrase "natural rights," which had been associated with the Greco-Roman concept of natural law since the end of the Middle Ages.


As understood today, human rights refer to a wide variety of values and capabilities reflecting the diversity of human circumstances and history. They are conceived of as universal, applying to all human beings everywhere, and as fundamental, referring to essential or basic human needs.


Human Rights have been classified historically in terms of the notion of three "generations" of human rights, with a fourth found in industrial countries in recent times.


The first generation of civil and political rights, associated with the Enlightenment and the English, American, and French revolutions, includes the rights to life and liberty and the rights to freedom of speech and worship.


The second generation of economic, social, and cultural rights were associated with revolts against unregulated capitalism from the mid-19th century, including the right to work and the right to an education.


The third generation of solidarity rights, associated with the political and economic aspirations of developing and newly decolonized countries after World War II, includes the collective rights to political self-determination and economic development. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, many treaties and agreements for the protection of human rights have been concluded through the auspices of the United Nations, and several regional systems of human rights law have been established.


Around the world 110 National human rights institutions have been set up to protect, promote or monitor human rights in a given country. Not all of them are compliant with the United Nation’s advisory standards, but the number and effect of these institutions is increasing.


The fourth generation of human rights is the one in which people of western industrialized countries know from a more practical perspective. These rights are enshrined in human rights and civil rights legislation pertaining to freedom from discrimination and harassment based on a list of characteristics, such as race, sex or gender, place of origin, colour of skin, sexual orientation and disability (just to mention a few).


While people might feel slighted by individuals in a passing encounter, not all feelings of human rights violations will be protected by law. Usually, human rights legislation will protect people from discrimination and harassment in employment, housing (renting or owning), services available to the general population, union affiliation and associations as well as publication and advertising.


Not all of the list of characteristics will be available for all the areas of protection, so it becomes important to find out exactly which characteristics are protected in which circumstances.



Harassment generally refers to a wide spectrum of offensive behaviour. However, because the term harassment is used in common English, there are plenty of times people use for behaviours that are more about “bugging” someone that truly “harassment.”  Where the term harassment is defined by law, the law varies by jurisdiction, but in Canada, when referring to the definition of harassment based on human rights, our courts have been quite clear.


If we look at one of the most common forms of harassment (even today), it would be sexual harassment. In 1989 the Supreme Court of Canada put a definition to sexual harassment that still applies today. Their definition of sexual harassment is “...Unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that detrimentally affects the work environment or leads to adverse job-related consequences for the victims of harassment.” You can put in any other forms of human rights harassment, such as race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, and disability, and you end up with a similar result. Basically you need some form of inappropriate behaviour based on sex (or age, or colour, etc.) and then there has to be some consequences to the person feeling harassed.


If you don’t define the definition of harassment narrowly, that is, just by human rights characteristics, then the definition will include all kinds of behaviours. In these cases, harassment can be defined as any improper conduct by an individual, or towards an individual, which is unwelcome, offensive, demeaning, derogatory, is otherwise inappropriate or fails to respect the dignity of an individual. Harassment comprises any objectionable act, comment or display that demeans, belittles, or causes personal humiliation or embarrassment. Harassment is also defined as any act of intimidation or threat.


Criminal harassment gets into a whole other area defined in the Criminal Code.


Civil Rights vs. Human Rights

Civil rights are the protections and privileges of personal power given to all citizens by law. Civil rights are distinguished from "human rights" or "natural rights." Civil rights are rights that are bestowed by nations on those within their territorial boundaries, while natural or human rights are rights many scholars claim individuals have by nature of being born. For example, the philosopher John Locke (1632 -1704) argued that the natural rights of life, liberty and property should be converted into  civil rights and protected by the sovereign state as an aspect of the social contract.

Laws guaranteeing civil rights may be written down, derived from custom or implied. In Canada, the United States, and most continental European countries, civil rights laws are most often written. Examples of civil rights and liberties include the right of redress if injured by another, the right to privacy, the right of peaceful protest, the right to a fair investigation and trial if suspected of a crime, and more generally-based constitutional rights such as the right to vote, the right to personal freedom, the right to freedom of movement and the right of equal protection. As civilizations emerged and formalized through written constitutions, some of the more important civil rights were granted to citizens.


On the other hand, human rights are supposed to be rights a person enjoys just for being born, for being human.  By that definition, these human rights cannot be deprived by any government, such as the right to life, the right to be free (not enslaved), the right to freedom of expression, the right not to be tortured, etc.  Human rights are considered universal, which means there are no boundaries and they apply to everyone regardless of place of origin, religion or ethnicity.


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