Making the case for group rights

William E. Taylor Fellowship winner seeks fine balance

Date published: 5/13/2008 2:20:04 PM

Dwight Newman isn't afraid of big questions. As a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, Newman brought his extensive training in law and philosophy to bear on the question of how countries should recognize and protect the rights of their minority groups.

In his 2005 doctoral thesis, Newman found that groups as well as individuals do have claims to human rights. “And contrary to what some states feared, these group rights don’t necessarily conflict with individual rights,” he explains. These can include the right to self-determination of indigenous peoples, as recognized by the United Nations, or rights to religious or cultural practices by religious or ethnic groups. “The claim to particular rights varies according to the circumstances and context of the group, and they don’t have rights to every cultural practice.” But there is legal and moral justification for extended human rights to groups, as well as individuals.

Newman's interest in the issue was sparked by Canada's efforts to legally protect the rights of linguistic, ethnic and aboriginal groups while still ensuring the fundamental equality of each Canadian citizen. Part of his work explored whether aboriginal groups are morally justified in claiming exemptions from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for certain aspects of self-government.

He notes that many countries, including those in the aftermath of civil conflicts, are still trying to come to grips with how to accommodate both individual and group rights. He has closely followed South Africa's efforts to protect the rights of its citizens in the post-apartheid era, and has spent time working for a human rights organization in Hong Kong to learn about an Asian framework for group rights.

With a reference in a Supreme Court of Canada judgment already under his belt, Newman sees this research in the vital area of human rights as a building block in the knowledge that develops legislation and policy.

Dwight Newman, an assistant professor and associate dean at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law, is a winner of the William E. Taylor Fellowship, awarded annually to SSHRC's most outstanding doctoral award recipient.