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Human Rights: Back to the Future
by UNESCO Courier, agencies
Dec. 2018 (UNESCO Courier)
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is undoubtedly one of the greatest documents in history. The first international treaty of ethical values to be adopted by humanity as a whole, it has served for seventy years “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations,” to quote from the speech of Eleanor Roosevelt – Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and of the UDHR Drafting Committee – delivered at the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948, the day before the Declaration was adopted.
Hailed as a unique charter of humanity and accepted as a key reference in today''s world when it comes to upholding the human dignity of people everywhere, the Declaration has not been immune to criticism, notably invoking the argument for cultural diversity.
While it is true that in its form, the UDHR is largely inspired by the Western tradition, it is equally true that, in substance, its principles are universal. “Tolerance and respect for individual dignity are foreign to no people and native to all nations,” stated Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations (1997-2006), at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration at UNESCO in 1998. We pay tribute to the Ghanaian diplomat, who passed away on 18 August 2018.
For his part, Federico Mayor, Director-General of UNESCO at the time, declared that “In ‘commemoration’, there is ‘memory’. We cannot act without memory. But what we must remember in order for our actions to be worthy of our fathers is not so much the date, the place or the letter, but more the sounds, the colours, the feeling or the spirit of the moment.”
This is precisely the goal of this issue of the Courier: to rediscover the spirit of the time, so that we may better inform our reflections on human rights today. The Wide Angle section presents a selection of texts sent in response to a major survey on the philosophical foundations of human rights, launched in 1947 by Julian Huxley, the first Director-General of UNESCO. More than sixty prominent thinkers responded to the call of the young Organization. Mahatma Gandhi was one of them, as were Benedetto Croce, Aldous Huxley, Humayun Kabir, Lo Chung-Shu and Arnold Schoenberg.
“Such a project was particularly timely, for a world consciousness had developed towards this question. Our whole social structure had been shaken by the repercussions of total war. People everywhere sought a common denominator to the problem of fundamental Human Rights,” wrote Jacques Havet – who coordinated the project – in the August 1948 Courier. The answers – some very brief letters, others long studies of the question – reflected, according to the young French philosopher, “nearly all the world''s national groups and nearly all ideological approaches”.
Certainly, the world has changed a lot in the last seventy years. Many nations have cast off the colonial yoke, and many cultural traditions have resurfaced since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. Yet this effort by UNESCO – to develop a global philosophy based on a broad knowledge of the world''s cultures – has lost none of its relevance or validity.
* Access the 80 page Human Rights edition of the UNESCO Courier via the link below.
Dec. 2018
What does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mean in today’s fractured world, asks Graca Machel, Deputy Chair of The Elders.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
These simple but powerful words are the first line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations at an extraordinary meeting in Paris 70 years ago this week.
But, do they mean anything today for a child in Yemen whose school has been bombed, or a rape survivor in South Sudan, or dissidents from Russia or Saudi Arabia living in fear of abduction and assassination?
And what do they offer for the next generation of leaders, who see many people currently in power in their countries downgrading or demeaning the importance of human rights as national and international politics are increasingly driven by polarisation and populism?
I believe the 70th anniversary of the declaration is a critical moment to reaffirm its values and guarantee its continued relevance.
This means engaging global citizens, listening to the victims of human rights abuses and advocating policies that protect their rights by holding leaders to account.
Let us be blunt: talk is cheap. Although fine words will be spoken this week to mark the declaration’s anniversary, millions of innocent civilians face devastating famine in Yemen because of the ongoing blockade of that country’s ports and land borders by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition.
The UN has warned that half of Yemen’s population — 14-million people out of 28-million – is at risk of famine, while the charity Save The Children estimates that some 85 000 children under the age of five have died from acute malnutrition brought on by the war since 2015.
This constitutes an appalling violation of their collective human rights, and is further disturbing evidence of the use of famine as a weapon of war as already witnessed in Syria and South Sudan.
The permanent members of the UN security council must act with urgency and good faith on all these conflicts if their pious declarations are not to ring hollow.
For Yemen, this must involve the United States, the United Kingdom and France putting real pressure on their regional allies driving the conflict, including the suspension of arms sales, and showing full support for the UN-led peace efforts that offer the only way to a durable and just resolution.
Yemen is just one grotesque example of continued human rights abuses. From Palestine to the Central African Republic, Eritrea to Myanmar and Venezuela to Syria, countless women, men and children have their rights denied and are subject to arbitrary detention, torture, sexual assault and murder.
Tyrants and dictators are further emboldened when democratic leaders abjure their responsibilities to uphold human rights and international law in favour of either cynical isolationism or cowardly short-termism.
The endemic lack of trust in public institutions we have observed in the decade since the global financial crisis means there is a very real threat of human rights being overturned, because those who supposedly speak for the people see them as an impediment to their grip on power and personal enrichment.
Understanding the historical context behind the declaration’s genesis in 1948, in all its complexity, is essential to preserving its legacy and guaranteeing its endurance.
It was born out of the devastation of World War II, the atrocity of the Holocaust and the determination — as seen in the contemporaneous Nuremburg Trials — to create new instruments to deliver justice and protect rights and freedoms.
Above all the declaration is a global text, informed by the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man as well as the African notion of ubuntu — eloquently explained by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as meaning “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours”.
But, the declaration’s power has always depended on the political will of leaders to uphold it, and not just pay hypocritical lip service to its noble aspirations.
The past seven decades offer countless depressing examples of the latter.
In the same year the declaration was signed, South Africa started the process of codifying their brutal apartheid regime; Palestinians were dispossessed en masse in the nakba linked to the founding of the State of Israel; and Britain and France were engaged in military conflicts around the globe to try to preserve their colonial empires.
To paraphrase George Orwell, many of the leaders who signed the declaration in 1948 clearly felt that all humans’ rights are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Human rights for the victims of colonialism, racism and other forms of discrimination, from sexism and homophobia to structural impoverishment and class prejudice, have only ever been won by the struggle of brave activists at the grassroots.
This was the path taken by Nelson Mandela, who fought all his life to secure freedom and justice in South Africa.
Twenty years ago, he addressed the UN general assembly to mark the 50th anniversary of the declaration. While hailing the power of its words, he challenged his fellow world leaders that the “failure to achieve this vision … results from the acts of commission and omission, particularly by those who occupy positions of leadership in politics and the economy and in other spheres of human activity”.
His words still ring true down the years, and should inspire all of us to hold our leaders to account, and to take responsibility for our own actions as global citizens.
I remain convinced that together, we can deliver the freedom at the heart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both today and for future generations.
* Graca Machel is an international advocate for women’s and children''s rights. She co-founded The Elders with her husband, Nelson Mandela. This article was first published in the Mail and Guardian, South Africa:
Sparks of Hope, by Graca Machel
Today, millions of people who feel left behind by the forces of globalisation, are easy prey to the siren songs of isolationism, xenophobia and racism.
Trust in the institutions of government, business and the multilateral system is at an all-time low, making it easy for the cynical peddlers of populism to win votes by offering false promises and seemingly simple solutions.
Many politicians and citizens alike either lack the courage to challenge these purveyors of prejudice or find solace in scapegoating and join the chorus of cheap bigotry.
Yet we abdicate our own responsibilities and abandon the most vulnerable in society if we succumb to fatalism and despair. History teaches us that change is always possible, even when things appear most bleak, when courageous women and men stand together, speak out and take action to change the status quo.
Madiba fought the evils of apartheid, along with his comrades both at home and in exile. They worked across gender, color, age and philosophical lines. From the likes of Albertina Sisulu and Ruth First, to Steve Biko and Hugh Masekela, to the schoolchildren of Soweto and the martyrs of Sharpeville—in their spheres of influence, all types of change agents played a critical role in overthrowing their racist regime.
Together, they overcame oppression and contributed to building a new democracy that allowed all South Africans, irrespective of political or racial affiliation, to become a part of this hopeful ideal; a rainbow nation.
Millions of people are alive today who were not even born when Mandela walked out of prison a free man. What is remarkable, and what gives me hope for the future, is how his life and legacy continue to inspire these younger generations.
The world has changed immeasurably in the three decades since Madiba was released. It has even changed immeasurably in the five years since his passing in 2013. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to take guidance from his moral compass to be reminded of the importance of respecting human dignity and defending equal rights for everyone--regardless of race, creed, national origin or sexual orientation.
We cannot tolerate a world where mothers and infants are separated by armed men in uniform, where assassinations and poisonings against civilians are considered an acceptable instrument of state power, or where desperate refugees and migrants are left helpless and vulnerable.
Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela believed in the power of positive change. So, it behoves us now, as we celebrate his centenary, to consider what we can do – both as individuals and collectively – to keep fighting for the freedoms he held so dearly.
It scarcely needs restating how urgent it is to keep up the fight. The politics of nationalism, from “America First” and Brexit to ethnic sectarianism, whether in India, Myanmar, Cameroon or Crimea, or to allow conflicts to ravage communities for years and create unspeakable suffering in places like Palestine or Syria, loosens the ties that bind us together in our common humanity.
The pursuit of protectionist agendas and the politics of intolerance also draw attention away from humanitarian crises which urgently need attention—and which, if left unattended, will come back to haunt those who think they can hide behind walls and raise the drawbridge.
Fortunately, there are countless people around the world who are not prepared to meekly abandon the hard-won gains of the past century, from gender equality to the right to health, education, access to justice and peace.
For the last year, The Elders – a group of independent global leaders have been working to support courageous civil society groups who uphold the values of peace, justice and equality. These “Sparks of Hope”, as we call these civil society groups, are 100 grassroots organisations from all corners of the globe and are comprised of peacemakers, human rights defenders, justice advocates, feminist campaigners and community health workers.
Over 67 million people around the world have joined us on social media to amplify the voices and reach of these “Sparks of Hope” and accelerate social change in their communities.
* Read their stories in this 100 page special booklet:

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Human rights are our common possession
by Ai Weiwei
What does it mean to be human? That question sits at the core of human rights. To be human has specific implications: human self-awareness and the actions taken to uphold human dignity – these are what gives the concept of humanity a special meaning.
Human self-awareness and human actions determine the interplay between individual thought and language and the wider society. It is our actions as humans that deliver economic security, the right to education, the right to free association and free expression; and which create the conditions for protecting expression and encouraging bold thinking.
When we abandon efforts to uphold human dignity, we forfeit the essential meaning of being human, and when we waver in our commitment to the idea of human rights, we abandon our moral principles. What follows is duplicity and folly, corruption and tyranny, and the endless stream of humanitarian crises that we see in the world today.
More than two centuries have passed since the concept of human rights was first developed. During that time humanity has gone through various stages of history and the world has seen enormous changes. In Europe, what was once a collection of colonialist, autocratic states has transformed into a democratic society with a capitalist orientation, establishing a mechanism that protects individual rights. Other societies are also seeing structural changes, and the concept of human rights is facing grave challenges.
In part these challenges stem from the disparate demands of countries in different stages of development, with contrasting economic situations and competing interests. But challenges also come from divergent conceptions and understandings of human rights, human dignity, morality and responsibility, and from different interpretations and applications of the core principles of human rights.
In the contemporary world, as our grasp of the fundamental values and principles of human rights and humanitarianism weakens, we risk losing our rights, responsibilities and our power to uphold human dignity.
History shows that a moral failure is always accompanied by painful realities, visible everywhere. The global refugee crisis is worsening daily, and 70 million refugees have been forced to leave their homes by war and poverty.
Our living environment is constantly being degraded, and the ecological balance is ever more fragile. Armed conflicts persist and potential political crises lurk; regional instabilities grow more acute; autocratic regimes brutally impose their will, while democratic governance is in decline.
Unreasoning and unrestrained expansion under a nationalist, capitalist order is exacerbating the global gap between rich and poor. Our views of the world have become more divided and more conflicted than ever.
Individuals in many countries and regions lack the opportunity to receive an education, to access information or communicate freely. They have no chance to exercise their imagination and creativity or fulfil their ideals; no chance to enjoy freedom of belief and freedom of association. Such rights and freedoms pose a fatal threat to autocracy and authoritarianism.
This is why, in so many places, lawyers have been imprisoned, journalists have been disappeared and murdered, why censorship has become so pervasive, why religious and non-governmental organisations have been ruthlessly suppressed. Today, dictatorships and corrupt regimes continue to benefit from reckless arms sales, and enjoy the quiet support of capitalist nations.
Religious divisions, ethnic contradictions and regional disputes all feed into primitive power plays. Their logic is simple: to weaken individual freedoms and strengthen the controls imposed by governments and dominant elites.
The end result is that individuals are deprived of the right to live, denied freedom from fear, and freedom of expression, or denied the rights to maintain their living environment and develop.
The concept of human rights needs to be revised. Discussions of human rights used to focus on the one-dimensional relationship between the state’s rights and individual rights, but now human rights involve a variety of relationships. Today, whether demands are framed in terms of the rights of the individual or the goals pursued by political entities and interest groups, none of these agendas exists in isolation. Historically, the conditions governing human existence have never been more globally interdependent.
The right of children to grow up and be educated, the right of women to receive protection, the right to conserve nature, the right to survival of other lives intimately connected with the survival of the human race – all these have now become major elements in the concept of human rights.
As science and technology develop, authoritarian states invade privacy and limit personal freedom in the name of counter-terrorism and maintaining stability, intensifying psychological manipulation at all levels. Through control of the internet and command of facial recognition technology, authoritarian states tighten their grip on people’s thoughts and actions, threatening and even eliminating freedoms and political rights.
Similar kinds of controls are being imposed to varying degrees within the global context. From this we can see that under these new conditions human rights have not gained a common understanding, and if discussion of human rights becomes narrow and shortsighted, it is bound to become nothing more than outdated, empty talk.
Today, Europe, the US, Russia, China and other governments manufacture, possess and sell arms. Pontificating about human rights is simply self-deluding if we fail to curb the dangerous practices that make armed conflict all the more likely.
Likewise, if no limits are placed on capitalist global expansion and the pervasive penetration of capital power, if there is no effort to curb the sustained assault by authoritarian governments on natural human impulses, a discussion of human rights is just idle chatter. Such a blatant abdication of responsibility can lead to no good outcome.
Human rights are shared values. Human rights are our common possession. When abuses are committed against anyone in any society, the dignity of humanity as a whole is compromised. By the same token, it is only when the rights of any individual and rights of the people of any region receive our care and protection that humanity can achieve a shared redemption.
Such is the principle of human rights, in all its stark simplicity. But a shared understanding of that truth still eludes us. Why so? Could it be that we are too selfish, too benighted, too lacking in courage? Or, perhaps, we are insincere, we don’t really love life enough: we con ourselves into imagining we can get away without discharging our obligation to institute fairness and justice, we fool ourselves into thinking that chaos is acceptable, we entertain the idea that the world may well collapse in ruin, all hopes and dreams shattered.
If we truly believe in values that we can all identify with and aspire to – a recognition of truth, an understanding of science, an appreciation of the self, a respect for life and a faith in society – then we need to eliminate obstacles to understanding, uphold the fundamental definition of humanity, affirm the shared value of human lives and other lives, and acknowledge the symbiotic interdependency of human beings and the environment.
A belief in ourselves and a belief in others, a trust in humanitarianism’s power to do good, and an earnest recognition of the value of life – these form the foundation for all human values and all human efforts.
* Ai Weiwei is a leading Chinese contemporary artist and activist.

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