Since 1948, human rights have entered the mainstream of international discourse. Even the harshest tyrants use the language of human rights, if only to distort its universal meaning. Three years after the Second World War — a war of unparalleled savagery — the fledging United Nations gave an eloquent expression to the very loftiest of human aspirations — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was well past midnight on December 10, 1948, exactly 60 years ago today, in the elegantly curved Palais de Chaillot in Paris when the Declaration was presented to the UN General Assembly.
Trumpeting hope over experience, the language echoed the American Declaration of Independence to affirm: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."
Is there to be justice or impunity for crimes against humanity? How much do rights matter? What progress has been made in this direction in the last 60 years? Scan the globe for examples of genocides, repression, torture, war and rape, terrorism, starvation deaths and environmental degradation, the answer will be well be a hollow laugh.
But since 1948, human rights have entered the mainstream of international discourse. Even the harshest tyrants use the language of human rights, if only to distort its universal meaning. Countries bleeding the nightmare of civil wars boast of government-backed human rights commissions that catalogue the atrocities of their enemies and ignore their own abuses. This is being done to deflect criticism rather than create accountability. The most recalcitrant countries are urged to respect human rights by the World Bank and IMF as condition for offering financial aid.
By the time Cold War ended in 1991, international conventions had set standards for civil and political rights, and women's and children's rights, and benchmarks defining torture and racial discrimination. Even in the face of horrors in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda, advances have been made.
The 1998 agreement, establishing the International Criminal Court was a landmark for international humanitarian law. So was the campaign to ban anti-personnel mines, though both highlighted the US opposition to any commitment that might restrict its freedom of action.
But human rights need a broader definition if they are to become universally respected. In regions where millions live in abject poverty, western concept of civil and political rights can mean little if basic economic and social rights are to be guaranteed. This is difficult terrain. Torture is torture in any language, but in a globalised, though still fragmented world, advanced industrialised societies cannot assume the primacy of their humanist values. There is the need for vigilance about the western democratic countries' own human rights records, as well as others' — and of the yawning gap between goals and achievements.
The kernel of human rights is concern for the human condition, however high or humble be the person. The vulgar sector affluently placed asks: "Why should I, if the going is good for me, bother about my neighbour and his misery? Why should Cain care to sustain Abel and not kill him for gain? Why should robbery be crime and why not grab as much as you may with unconcern for the lacerated lot?" The answer is compassion, love, fellowship and identity with the wretched of the earth.
The struggle for human deliverance and the battle for universal brotherhood and sisterhood are the pith and substance of the Magna Carta of humanity enshrined in the San Francisco Charter (1945), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the two International Covenants (1966) which spell out material projections of human rights.
The time has come for the human rights movement itself to give equal priority to economic, social and cultural rights. It should search for ways to play as prominent a role in the future in the monitoring and implementation of economic, social and cultural rights as it has in the past in the monitoring and implementation of civil and political rights.
Nelson Mandela's words, way back in 1992, are a fitting finale to my thoughts on this Human Rights Day. "Our common humanity transcends the oceans and all national boundaries. It binds us together in a common cause against tyranny, to act together in defence of our very humanity. Let it never be asked of any one of us: what did we do when we knew that another was oppressed?"
What the originators of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafted 60 years ago was a blueprint for a better future. But the job was not finished that December. It is a work still in progress.
By P.N.BENJAMIN in Deccan Herald,10/12.2008
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