Saturday 13 December 2008 (15 Dhul Hijjah 1429)
Why human rights declaration is still relevant
Iman Kurdi | ik...@hotmail.com
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.