Human Rights or Civil Liberties?

Recently I was quite perplexed by a news report that covered the difficulties faced by a young school girl.  The issue related to her food allergies and the dilemma she faced  at school.

Her mother had lodged a complaint that the school should provide a safe place for her daughter during lunch and snack times. In the interview, the mother made heated complaints that the lack of concern for her daughter’s allergies, was a violation of human rights.  The daughter’s classmates should all be aware of the situation and parents should no longer include dairy in their children’s lunch and snack boxes.

The school went into a typical knee-jerk reaction, trying to avert any possible liabilities.  They met with the mother and daughter (around 8 years old) and tried to come up with a viable solution for all.

What puzzled me, was how the term “human rights”was being bandied about by the indignant mother.  How dare society shrink her child’s enjoyment of life, by having present an offending food her daughter couldn’t cope with. It was an attack on her child’s basic human rights and must not be tolerated!

We know of course, that this is the case with peanuts.  Some children and adults have such a violent reaction, in some cases with lethal consequences, even when in proximity of peanuts, that airlines and other public services, including schools, have banned peanuts from the lunch and snack boxes.

I do sympathize with the mother, who feels protective of her daughter and wishes to provide her child with the best possible quality of life.  On the other hand,  I feel she is going overboard by demanding that others in her daughter’s surroundings, stop going about their daily routines, to accommodate her allergies.

Suffering personally from food allergies, I don’t intend to minimize the issue, or the negative effects that partaking of a food could have on someone with allergies.  What I do object is how the mother freely availed herself of a term that does not fit the situation. What do food allergies, or any allergies for that matter, have to do with human rights?

To be sure I understood the issue in the proper context, I refreshed my memory on the definition of human rights.  According to the United Nations’ official universal declaration of  human rights, it states that everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country; the right to equal access to public service in his country, and that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government, through elections and such.

The declaration goes on to explain the rights to education; the rights for mothers in regards to the care of their children, whether born in or out of wedlock, as it pertains to receiving and enjoying the same social protection as others.

In article 25, it specifically mentions: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

(For the full definition see: http://www.humanrights.com/what-are-human-rights/universal-declaration-of-human-rights/articles-21-30.html)

My understanding  from the above,  is that it speaks to rights pertaining to basic necessities, which most of us in western society enjoy, but many  other societies don’t. The mother’s statement that her daughter’s basic human rights were violated were therefore preposterous.

Maybe, what the mother was really trying to convey, was that her daughter’s civil liberties were being ignored. There is a civil liberty law pertaining to life-threatening allergies. Civil rights and liberties tend to differ from state to state, and for Canada, from province to province.

The following example  from the U.S. makes the issue clear:

“The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, a Civil Rights Law:
Children with life-threatening food allergies are considered by law to be disabled, and are protected in schools by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  The purpose of this civil rights law is “..to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in education or employment in any program or institution receiving federal funds, and to ensure that students with handicaps or disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education.”  This applies to all institutions, including public schools, which receive financial assistance from the federal government.”

(http://www.foodallergygourmet.com/Food%20Allergy/FA%20the%20Law.htm)

In this example, the allergy, because of its life-threatening nature, is considered a disability and therefore protected under civil rights laws.  Nevertheless, not all countries, states or provinces may have the same protection enshrined in their articles. Civil rights laws differ greatly from region to region.

In the case of the girl, while she does suffer from allergies, the fact that others have the offending food in their possession, does not necessarily constitute a life-threatening situation (that was not mentioned in the interview). What is straightforward, is the fact that the allergy problem presented by the mother was not a basic human rights issue or violation.

In the end, it can be quite off-putting, unhelpful and counterproductive to misuse labels, in order to justify our sense of outrage or of feeling unjustly treated, and in trying to elicit public sympathy.

 P.S.:

My book, Hijacked! Idols in Disguise can now be ordered at: http://www.writingsphinx.com

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