Saturday 13 December 2008 (15 Dhul Hijjah 1429)

      Why human rights declaration is still relevant
      Iman Kurdi |
      Wednesday marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of 
Human Rights (UDHR). The global impetus for the declaration, arising as it did 
from the embers of World War II, remains as relevant today as it was then, 
though the context has changed. 

      A quick glance around the planet finds that only a tiny minority of the 
world's population enjoys the four fundamental freedoms: Freedom of speech, 
freedom of assembly, freedom from fear and freedom from want. And as for 
Article 1, the famous first line of the declaration - "All human beings are 
born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and 
conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood - too 
remains an unattainable dream for most people on the planet. 

      UDHR is an aspirational declaration that attempts to be universal. It is 
not law, it is not a rigid view of the world that aims to force people to 
adhere to a narrow code of conduct. Quite the contrary, it is an inclusive set 
of aims and aspirations in which people of different religious, cultural and 
social backgrounds can find common ground. 

      I think of the UDHR as more than an international document that laid the 
foundations for the covenants on human rights that followed. As an individual, 
I feel more or less powerless to achieve the underlying view of a just and 
peaceful world where all human beings are regarded as equal regardless of 
gender, race, religion, birth, social position, political opinion or any other 
factor. But what the UDHR has done is put into the public consciousness a way 
of thinking about humanity that could eventually make that vision of the world 
a reality. Of course that is still a long way away. One of the problems with 
protecting human rights is that it can conflict with the needs of governments 
and law-enforcement agencies. What is more, the real test of commitment to the 
protection of human rights comes when there is a perceived national threat. 
Witness the extent to which countries which have long shouted from the rooftops 
about human rights have suddenly tried to pass laws allowing them to keep 
people in detention without trial for 90 days, or imprison them in a no-man's 
land of a foreign camp and call the prisoners enemy combatants, or censured and 
jailed journalists for printing inconvenient truths, or stopped having qualms 
about collecting personal information if this invasion of privacy enables them 
to collect information that might help them fight the T word. Terrorism is 
effectively testing both national and individual commitment to the rights 
enshrined in the UDHR. 

      Terrorists do not value human life, nor do they believe that all human 
beings are born equal. This is especially true of the Al-Qaeda brand of 
terrorists who betray total contempt for human life and whose ethos is one of 
dividing humanity into the (in their view) "enlightened" who share their 
beliefs and "the infidels" who don't and thus deserve to die. 

      In engaging in the war against terror, the path of least resistance is to 
ride roughshod over individual rights. It's the "ends justify the means" 
argument. If torturing someone enables you to obtain information that helps 
catch a terrorist, then that torture will have saved countless lives and so is 
justifiable. Similarly, if holding suspects without charge for months on end 
improves chances of obtaining information that prevents further terrorist 
attacks, then that detention is justified. And if innocent people end up being 
caught in the net, as they invariably will, too bad; it is regrettable but 

      Many individuals feel so threatened by terrorism that they are willing to 
give up their commitment to human rights in exchange for a perceived increase 
in personal safety. Governments are all too happy to play on that fear. It is a 
slippery slope. Not only does it start to undo some of the important progress 
that has been made over the last sixty years but it plays straight into the 
hands of the terrorists. Just think how much anger the images from Abu Ghraib 
or from Guantanamo have created. 

      If the UN is to embody civil society it needs to be defined by a 
commitment to a set of values and beliefs which puts the rights of individuals 
above the interests of political groups or nation states. That is what the 
Universal Declaration of Human Rights does. It may seem like a utopian dream, 
but it is one worth pursuing. Its 60th anniversary should serve as a wake-up 
call to all those who signed up to this vision of the world.

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