Friday, January 27, 2006

The politics of human rights in London

According to the London Free Press, retired Superior Court justice Jeffrey Flinn's review of London's human rights office will be delivered to council in public on February 6. Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco was reported to be almost breathless in her anticipation of the report.

"Obviously, this was a very important step for us to have Judge Flinn review our human resources practices, process and office," DeCicco said.

"We want to know if there's anything we can improve, if we're using the right process or if he has any recommendations."
In other words,
"I have no idea what to do, and I have no way of knowing whether or not Judge Flinn has anything useful to suggest, but the report's recommendations will give me a way of appearing to do something without having to be accountable for anything except following those recommendations!"
I have a recommendation — abolish the office of the phoney-baloney human rights specialist's position. Nothing any politician or bureaucrat has done to date has solved more problems than it has created. As a review of the human rights office in London, I present a slightly edited version of a post that appeared here before. It is admittedly lengthy, but relevant to the mayor's unhinging on the subject.

To date, the addition of this specialist position at city hall has yielded, in no particular order:
  • no successful resolutions of any human rights complaints that have been made public;
  • one unsuccessful complaint made by the human rights specialist herself;
  • a dismissal of that human rights complaint by a paid outside arbitrator (the human rights specialist being barred from adjudicating her own complaint);
  • the expense of paying a human rights specialist who does not even work in London, and who has not done any work that anyone can account for except for blithe assurances by the mayor;
  • two complaints made to the Ontario Human Rights Commission against city council directly related to the position of the human rights specialist;
  • Joyce Burpee, the city's second human rights specialist, has been on leave from her job since June of last year and has filed one of those complaints against the city herself with the Ontario Human Rights Commission; and,
  • more embarrassment for city council.
The human rights specialist position was created in response to city management's response to a 1999 case of sexual torture in which a municipal employee was tortured after a date with a city building inspector, Stephen Joksas. Joksas was given a two-year leave while serving his jail term, but was fired only after a public uproar.

The sexual torture charge was dealt with as a criminal trial, altogether appropriately. The reaction of city management — giving leave to the criminal during his jail term — was negligent and contemptuous of both the victim and the city's taxpayers, as well as of sound managerial practices. The lack of good judgment — to say the least, or outright cronyism and pathological derision to speak of the most likely — by city managers would have been best dealt with by censure and dismissals.

And yet, city hall instead responded with a plan — an anti-harassment policy written by a lawyer, of which the Free Press has been unable to obtain a copy — and a human rights watchdog, as though the problem was an administrative glitch in procedure or a lack of sensitivity. It is typical of a city administration, accountable in council only to its own attempt to manufacture a lack of opprobrium — as far as that seems necessary in London — and in management to its own pecuniary and security interests, to try to solve the problems of bureaucracy by adding further layers of bureaucracy. In fact, city hall's response serves as an instance of the same problem it purports to prevent — protectionism of city employees by deflecting the issue from one of personal culpability to an appearance that there is either a shortage of procedure, the details of which are too minute to be appreciated by or even worth forwarding to the public, or a climate of insensitivity to human rights, of which the definition may remain equally vague. City management does not lack sensitivity training or procedure, it lacks accountability and judgment. So what is to be accomplished by obscuring this lack of accountability and judgment with procedures and doctrines?

It can be shown, as demonstrated above, that neither the anti-harassment policy nor the position of human rights specialist have advanced any possible conception of rights at city hall in any measurable or even qualitative sense. It cannot be demonstrated in either sense because there can be no proffered standard by which success can be determined — except for either the hope by city hall that it has effected a public perception damage control, at which it has utterly failed, or an increase in reported human rights complaints, which suggests failure in the endeavour but simultaneously strengthens apparent demand for the service. Procedural texts are substitutes for sound judgment when employment is either ephemeral or requires little aptitude — like McDonalds. When sound judgment cannot be expected to be exercised by city management, they should either be paid minimum wage and given their procedures, or they should be fired.

More misdirectional still is the suggestion that a lack of or insensitivity to human rights is the source of contention within city management and needs to be procured by a human rights specialist. Merely inapproprate behaviour is obviously counter-productive and should be dealt with by competent management. Even the case of sexual torture, cited as the antecedent of city human rights policy, was not an instance of city management violating human rights but of negligent and contemptuous practice by management in giving Joksas leave. The only violation of rights that occurred was committed by Joksas when he tortured his co-worker and which was dealt with, appropriately, as a criminal case. In fact, criminal law has been fundamentally — before and aside from extraneous politically-motivated provisions such as drug laws — the device by which rights have been protected. That is, it should be explained, rights as they were once properly understood to be absolute, inalienable and non-rivalrous — to one's life, liberty and property, protected from murder, confinement, assault, theft and fraud — before the understanding of those rights became corrupted and transitory by postmodern relativism and pliability. By suggesting that rights are procured, not by the common sense and decency of competent employees, but by the graces of a specialist whose understanding of those rights is, by definition, uncommon and specialized, egregious behaviour by city employees is excused by ignorance of that specialized education. That suggestion, of course, serves as a bureaucratic tool to protect bureaucrats in London. But, more importantly, the indefinability of modern platitudinous human rights — the relativism and pliability of the conception, the lack of objective standards by which the protection of those rights can be measured — is a tool by which bureaucrats and politicians can increase their authority, by placing the rendering of those rights in the hands of another official employee. Can anyone say what exactly these human rights are nowadays? Unlike our common understanding, they have been superceded by specialized postulates refereeing competing rights — for example, sparing hurt feelings, presumed at the discretion of the plaintiff, may trump the unprepossesed exercise of freedom of speech by the defendant. So now London not only has an additional highly-paid bureaucrat whose purpose and activities are not made clear to taxpayers, but also an official endorsement of a relative conception of human rights that may be adapted, from above, to suit the interests of those rights-competitors who may be favoured at any given moment by the referees. In no way are the interests of Londoners served — have you any more rights now than you did before?

A summary chronology of the human rights specialist fiasco at city hall, on which even simple expectations of city management may founder:
  • July 2002: Catherine Burr hired as London's first human rights specialist in response to a report on the 1999 sexual assault and torture of a female employee by city worker Stephen Joksas, later fired.
  • April 2003: Burr resigns, alleging interference by some senior managers.
  • January 2004: Joyce Burpee is hired as the city's human rights watchdog, amid allegations political pressure forced administration to abandon plans to hire a man for the job. Staff denied the allegation.
  • May 2004: Burpee files a complaint alleging the city hall chef poisoned her work environment by circulating racist hate literature and removing anti-racism posters from the cafeteria. Investigator later clears the chef of the allegations.
  • September 2004: A Toronto lawyer files a human rights complaint against the city, alleging he was overlooked for the human rights specialist's job due to gender.
  • June 2005: Burpee goes on leave from her job for unknown reasons and files a human rights complaint against the city.
And to think Jeff Fielding was suggesting getting another a human resources specialist… presumably to protect employees from the human rights specialist.

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