Of Humans and Rights, in Times of Terror

Is it really possible today, to think, talk or write about human rights without one or more of the following emotions or attitude: cynicism, indifference, evasion, anger, angst, disillusionment, remorse, a sense of life itself being mocked at, pain or suffering? And do we even care enough to ask ourselves why it has become like this? Or, more pertinently, why we have become like this?

December 10, 2007 marked the completion of 59 years since the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That Declaration was made about three years after the mindless orgy of violence and war during World War II (1939-1945). Today however, when terrorism has 'progressed' and become 'sophisticated' to such a degree that no country in the world can be considered safe or free of violence, how can we possibly unravel the Human Rights baggage down to its simplicity, and to the truth from which it emerged? Without falling into the endless traps laid out by cold intellectual analysis, which ensures, as it is meant to do, that the status quo goes on in one mind-numbing form or another?

Perhaps we shouldn't talk about the hard facts regarding terrorism or the impunity with which violence is perpetrated on the planet today ' whether it is to do with severely malnourished children or the forced recruitment of child soldiers; of women being stripped naked and paraded before their communities only because they dare to assert themselves; or of young men and women being systematically brain-stormed into becoming human bombs. Simply because that would destroy the feel-good factor in a world drunk on buying and selling, or because it just wouldn't be politically correct to rake up stuff that might hurt the sentiments of a section of people who yield the all-important votes in a particular constituency during election time.

Nevertheless, it may well be worth our while to begin at the beginning ' and see where that leads us.

For the record, those who prepared the UN document of 1948 failed to notice that the world ' even at that time ' had women, girls and boys living in it, apart from the men. One could of course, argue that this was merely an oversight as the word 'women' is mentioned once in the articles of the document with reference to marriage (Article 16); and the words 'motherhood and childhood' are included in Article 25 as conditions entitled to 'special care and assistance'.

It took more than three decades and a large number of women to place the Rights issue somewhat on track. Although CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women) entered into force in 1981, women's rights continued to be so invisible, that the UN saw the need to strengthen the convention. Towards this purpose, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1993. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the other hand, came into force in 1990.

One could say, at this point, that the international instruments on the rights of men, women and children seem to be in place, even though it is possible to argue endlessly on their flawed development, their shortcomings and indeed, their efficacy in implementation.

But how on earth are ordinary people expected to deal with the desensitizing reality of daily life which is at complete variance with what these exemplary international treaties promise or expound? Let's look at some of the most demeaning human experiences in the world as a whole over the past two decades. The Yugoslav wars, the genocide in Rwanda, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the invasion of Iraq are only a few examples.

Closer home ' in the South Asian region ' we know about the decimation of lives in Afghanistan, the terror in Jammu & Kashmir, Sri Lanka, the north-eastern states of India, and'. Outside of the category of conflict-areas and deeper into terror, how do we reconcile ourselves to the everyday threat ' of traveling on a train or a bus with an RDX bomb beneath our seats, of being Muslim in Gujarat, of being a woman in a village in Pakistan or in Haryana, or of being robbed of a carefree childhood in Nepal or Bangladesh? What can international instruments possibly hope to achieve when politicians directly responsible for organized crimes against people continue to win elections?

'The violence and terror we are forced to live with has already begun to strangle our psyche quite severely,' says a woman peace-seeker in South Asia, who prefers anonymity. 'Those who seek peace have noticed that the level of aggression in simple, day-to-day interaction within families, at workplaces and out on the street, has risen. This is not insignificant; it is a reflection of the dehumanizing experiences people all over the world are going through.'

It wouldn't, really, be far-fetched to say that humanity ' much like climate change ' is going downhill at breakneck speed. With many heads of state working against ordinary people's preference for peace, does it seem possible to give new meaning to Rights or to devise new strategies for living with dignity?

Historically, even in the decades preceding World War I, the demand for peace and women's rights have been inseparable, a fact recognized in international social justice declarations. Although women-led organizations have long been demanding a space for decision-making in the restoration of peace in war-torn areas, this has not happened.

At quite another level, it is also true that the Rights-based approach often runs into obstacles related to the cultural context of the South Asian region. The foremost of these is the way in which individuals and relationships are perceived in everyday life.

Given the cancerous spread of violence, terror and fundamentalism in most of South Asia today, as well as the overlap in the region's cultural and political traditions, could we possibly move towards a perspective that encompasses but goes beyond the Rights-based approach? What is being indicated here is the exploration and articulation of a peace perspective focused on preventing the outbreak of insidious violence rather than being involved only in patch-work, restoration activity, post the trauma of terror.

Despite women's liberation, the fact is that social and political life in South Asia (and the world, of course) is still ruled by patriarchal thought which has been further boosted by the issues of agency and choice. In moving beyond the Rights-based approach, it would be imperative that serious women peace-seekers continue to play a critical role, and especially so in bringing together everyone committed to building the basic tenets of a peaceful society.

At IIC, Delhi on December 10, a group of 30 NGOs pooled their resources and presence in defence of Rights in South Asia. The event ended on a note of hope, and organizations working for peace and Rights in the region reiterated the need for groups to work together ' with respect to diversity rather than divisiveness.  


More by :  Tripta Batra

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