“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and right.
They are endowed with reason and conscience
and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
These lines from Article 1 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights are the very foundation of modern human rights activism and promotion of mutual respect and compassion. It is the inspiration for organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Today, human rights are not just a moral philosophy but also an ideal recognized by international law and encouraged by a global movement. Yet, history stands a silent observer to the gross violation of human rights and fundamental freedom.
Time and again our conscience has been infuriated by repugnant acts of merciless brutality committed by individuals and groups. There is the continued violence in Iraq, chaos in Afghanistan, uncertainty in the Middle East and fear of terrorist attacks in every city and town. It is not uncommon for the unprivileged to be denied justice, and social, cultural and economic rights continue to be violated everyday. It all makes one wonder whether human rights really matter? Does anyone really care after all inhuman acts continue to be part of our history?
It is easy to say ‘No’ as human rights seem to have simply become an idealist concept for majority of the people in the world. It is a vision that has inspired international laws and organizations but largely remained an unrealized reality. Take for instance the Armenian Genocide during 1915-1916, where about 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the then Turkish Government. The Holocaust led to the death of almost 6 million Jewish people and left many more to live with the scars of human cruelty for life. We continue to be haunted by the images of frail bodies and pleading eyes of victims starved, beaten and tortured. The pledges to prevent such terrible acts against humanity remain insincere, ineffective and lacking political commitment as perpetrators rarely punished and the lack of accountability allowing a vicious cycle to set in with ease.
The genocide of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 led to the death of over half a million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge. In 1994, the genocide in Rwanda led to approximately 800,000 people being brutally murdered as the international community deliberated and struggled to find consensus for an “intervention force” in Rwanda. From the “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo to the tortures at Abu Gharib prison in Iraq, the dark side of human nature has surfaced each time with greater wickedness and contempt. The gruesome deaths and tales of horror become more disturbing with each new conflict and wave of hate. What propels such brutish inhumanity is debatable but unjustifiable.
Human Rights violation is not only defined by the magnitude of killings and tortures alone but the denial to a decent existence and respect for human life. In many countries, people survive under deplorable living conditions and an estimated 250 million children around the world are working in various jobs, frequently under hazardous conditions. Religious persecution, repression and denial to access to rule of law are all cumulatively violation of human rights in a small, medium or large scale. There is an acknowledgement of Universal Human Rights as a righteous vision, but the continuous violation of its principles has left many to wonder whether it is simply a hypothetical concept confined to international statutes.
Human right is not a new phenomenon having evolved over centuries. Abstractly derived from the philosophy of the ancient Greco-Roman doctrines’ of natural law, the principles of human rights were reflected in the earliest known legal document called ‘Magna Carter’ or ‘Great Charter.’ The document was signed in 1215 as a concession made between King John of England and a group of barons that rebelled against the arbitrary powers of the King. As a result, the charter granted rights to the citizens of England and at the same time created limitations to the King’s authority. It had then become an important part of British constitutional history and a significant part in the struggle for Universal Human Rights.
The works of the Italian theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas laid the foundation of international law outlined by Hugo Grotius. In the 17th and 18th Century, philosophers debated the theory of “natural rights” emerging from the concept of natural law. That is, human beings were born with certain rights that could not be denied by any authority as they were endowed by nature or God. It was a theory clearly reflected in the works of John Locke, Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It recognized the need to “promote and encourage respect for Human Rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Declaration is a testament of a commitment to the basic principles of Human Rights. But as the statues are voluntary, governments and the international community are not bound to adhere to the principles of international law. However, from the English Bill of Rights in 1689 to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the struggle continues for dignity and civil liberties for all human beings.
Various International organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Free the Slaves to name a few, have become global movements that strive to keep alive the vision for a world where human dignity has a value and where respect for human rights is not a choice but a necessity. There have been failures and setbacks which have made us disillusioned about the value placed on human rights.
However, the challenge remains to overcome the hurdles without losing hope in humanity to prevail through the dark times.
Where there is a failure, there is also a success. The International Criminal Court is a promising step forward in bringing to justice war criminals and crimes against humanity. In Albania, lawmakers have successfully passed anti-discrimination bill to ensure equality for all. These are just some of the successes that renew and strengthen our belief in ‘Human Rights’ as a conscientious obligation of all nations for change and betterment.
The success of Human Rights lies in the effectiveness of global civil society to be mobilized in voicing their concerns and exerting pressure to end crimes against humanity. Governments must be held accountable by their citizens to ensure the rule of law is applied impartially. International organizations build much greater awareness of issues but need to find effective solutions implemented by action. There have been considerable obstacles in the journey for human rights, as history reveals, but we must not give up or give in but stay firmly on course for there is no other way, humanity is the only way to our existence.
It is not easy to strive for human rights and freedom in a world that is far from perfect and divided by changing times. It would, in all honesty, be unrealistic to think that there can be no violation of human rights and that every human being is capable of being peaceful. However, Human Rights begins with each one of us ensuring that human rights means something more than just words in the pages of international law. There is an anonymous saying that best sums it up: “There is enough bad in people to make law necessary, and enough good in people to make it workable."