Today I am going to take the liberty of using the precious space I have on this screen to introduce you to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because Saturday is the International Human Rights Day.
How many of us really know what the Declaration stands for? It was established in December of 1948, at the end of an eventful year during which Gandhi was assassinated while on a fast-unto-death protest in Delhi, Warner Brothers showed its first color reel, the pillars of NATO were set to restrain the Soviet Union, the Supreme Court ruled (in McCollum v. Board of Education) that religious instruction in Private Schools violates the US Constitution, Harry Truman signed the Marshal Plan, and the Arab-Israeli conflict escalated to the 1948 war that drove the Egyptians from the Negev and began the exodus of Jewish people from Arab lands into Israel.
It was a tumultuous year that came on the heels of a world war that pitted hemispheres against each other and placed ideologies at odds with one another. The winner would be measured by the burden of human bloodshed.
The Declaration of Human Rights was an ideal that was articulated by statesmen and military leaders who had seen the wrath of war and could no longer bear its horrors. They were hoping to put an end to the misery that people can inflict upon people. It begins:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge.
The pledge is to have a common standard around the world for human rights, and to keep this declaration "constantly in mind" while promoting, indeed teaching, a "respect for these rights and freedoms". In the ensuing 30 Articles that comprise the Declaration, all things ideal are mentioned. Without the jaded knowledge of the cruel reality that transpires on a daily basis around the world, a naïve reader may wonder why, as members of a common human race, can we not effortlessly accord each other these basic rights? But indeed, we cannot.
This year the sparsely practiced ideals of this Declaration were brought to light through the valiant protests of Arab citizens throughout the Middle East. With fists clenched and vocal chords strained, men and women young and old, rich and poor took to the streets risking life and limb for more rights -- basic fundamental rights rooted in dignity, equality and fair treatment. Although the world looked on and cheered them, championing their ideals while their protests were loud, we have largely begun to look away as their demands continue to be ignored and their rights trampled-on.
Springtime in the Arab world, as in many other parts of the world, has given way to Summer, Fall and now Winter with no substantial change in the way people treat people. In Egypt more than a quarter of its children still live below the level of poverty (on less than $1US/day) and in rural areas that number is perhaps as high as 45 percent. This may explain why families feel the need to sell their children to servitude, in order to be able to feed the rest of the family. Education in rural areas is a non-starter, often even for young boys, much less the girls. Basic health care and hygiene are unavailable to an estimated 5 to 6.6 million children in Egypt, according to IRIN. The women who are largely tasked with caring for and raising these children fare no better. They were likely brided at an early age, had children in an uncontrolled way and have little resources and no education by which to support them. The men dictate the rules of the family and the women have no say in the husband they spend their lives with, the age at which they bear children or the number of children they bear. Dignity falls through the cracks.
Across swaths of Nepal and India, children are kidnapped from their homes, or cajoled out of the clutch of their parents by opportunistic middle men, who sell them into slavery and prostitution with an attendant life-term of captivity. Most are girls who are deemed unworthy of an education or a chance at a contribution to society, beyond what their gender can offer. In the modern day, many of them fall victim to AIDS and will not live past their 20's.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan women and girls are bought and sold like cattle, valued by the volume of weight they can carry, menial work they can accomplish, and healthy children they can bear. They are not valued as people, with "the right to life, liberty and security of person", as the Declaration of Human Rights mandates in Article 3; nor does anyone flinch at the fact that after they are bartered off, they will be held in slavery or servitude "which shall be prohibited in all their forms", according to article 4.
"No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment", says Article 5. But the most basic tale of the harrowing experience millions of people endure as victims of the trafficking trade, or as the young servants of a wealthier household that has purchased them to settle a debt or even a score, shows that this sort of treatment is, dare I say it, almost common place in many parts of the world.
"Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law", mandates Article 6; but most exploited people have no access to the law, and in many places don't even get recognized as full citizens to be able to enjoy the protection of laws. In India, the Dalit are second-class citizens who cannot work or live outside their sequestered communities. "All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law", pledges Article 7; yet in many parts of the Arab world and even Iran, women are seen as ½ of a man in the eyes of the law and their testimony is accorded only half the weight. This becomes prohibitive when a woman accuses a man of a crime. She will lose unless she has another witness to corroborate her story. Since most gender crimes take place in private, the woman's inequality before the law results in a lack of protection in their lives, and an open doorway for systemic abuse.
Articles 9 & 10 state "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, and that everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal". But here again, one need look no further than the common news-cast to see evidence of widespread corruption and random detainment across every continent. In too many cities and towns across this earth, individuals from all walks of life continue to be rounded-up in the most haphazard ways, and carted to jails where operatives with little education and no conscience wait to inflict pain on them, for a crime that usually consists only of ideas - ideas that oppose a system which refuses to give them the rights the universe has bestowed on them.
If the Universal Declaration for Human Rights is to be believed, it must be enforced in a systemic way. It is not enough to speak about it, celebrate it and quote it to stir the emotions of people who may never have experienced life without those rights, then look away when its principles are violated. It must be imposed in those places where its ideals are unfamiliar, and its declarations unenforced. In fact, most people know the Declaration of Human Rights only in theory and can't name its articles in practice. We treat it as a model we hope to reach, versus a base-line that we must ensure. Natural evolution will not lead humanity to uniform human rights; advocacy, education and uncompromising standards may.
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