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Human Rights are On The Ropes

By Daniel Farber Huang

October 15, 2019

Refugees from Somalia and Iraq are detained by local police after arriving by boat on Chios, Greece. July 28, 2018. Photo by Celeste Huang-Menders
Refugees from Somalia and Iraq are detained by local police after arriving by boat on Chios, Greece. July 28, 2018. Photo by Celeste Huang-Menders

It’s a shame, really. Our world would have been a much better place if all people treated each other with even the smallest measure of respect and equity “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,” as originally set out almost 70 years ago by the United Nations in its optimistically-named Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

While there have been some minor successes over the past 7 decades in the name of human rights, let’s face it, the small wins seem to be grossly outnumbered by humanity’s missteps. Sometimes there are outright failures.

The concept behind the UDHR is noble, some might even call it beautiful. All people – whoever, wherever – are entitled to certain fundamental rights such as freedom from slavery, freedom from torture, equality under the law, freedom of movement (including leaving and returning to their home country), the right to asylum, freedom of thought, choice of religion and many other privileges that lay out the architecture for the peaceful world most people would want to live in. At present, it is a beautiful piece of fiction.

The UN today boasts all its member States have ratified at least one of the nine core international human rights treaties, and 80 percent have ratified four or more, giving concrete expression to the universality of the UDHR and international human rights. But what does it mean in practice, when push literally comes to shove?

In direct contrast to the grandiose intentions of the UDHR, our collective performance has been abysmal. The UN calls the current global refugee crisis “the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.” As of the end of 2018, over 70 million men, women and children have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution. That obscene level of violence equates to 1 person becoming a refugee every 2 seconds.

Every. Two. Seconds.

That’s over 50 people since you started reading this article and more than 130 new refugees created by the time you finish.

As the poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec noted, “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”

Human rights are on the ropes and continue to be pummeled. Many blows are deliberate violations planned by governments and their leaders, but I believe the greater damage over time is the result of individual apathy, when a person could have stood up for the oppressed but instead just stood by. I’m not pointing fingers at any one person, I believe it is the collective failure – mine most certainly included – where we expect someone else to take a stand while we’re busy being busy. Human rights in the past few decades have been struggling to survive, and our collective failure to address the still-growing global refugee crisis is proof positive that we simply don’t care enough to stop it.

When the UDHR was being proposed back in the 1940s, U.S. politicians at the time argued loudly for or against it along partisan lines, just as pettily as our politicians today do on, well, everything. Our ethical vacuum throughout the Vietnam War allowed U.S.-led human rights violations to destroy or snuff out countless civilian lives. President Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger staunchly kept human rights out of his diplomatic toolbox. Granted, international diplomacy is a complicated arena, but Kissinger’s conscious decision to turn a blind eye to brutal, systematic violations by U.S.-friendly countries because it served his goal of combating communism will be part of his legacy.

President Carter made human rights a centerpiece of his administration, oftentimes looking outward around the world more than in, and we as a country started to lead by example and with flowing dollars. But by that time, the task of regaining the moral high ground the U.S. proudly held after World War II was akin to Sisyphus forever rolling his boulder uphill, only to have it roll down again and again and again.

Cynics will say that people are driven by fear and greed. Post-9/11, fear has been a highly effective lever for the few to manipulate the many. Fear of Muslims, immigrants, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ individuals, countless others. It seems any group that can be labeled can be spun into “the enemy” if one tries hard enough. Scientists, journalists, historians, pediatricians even. And don’t get me started on absurd hatred being directed toward eco-friendly people, whether climatologists or high school students.

Although we adults have had a hard time learning from the past, the future generations of leaders – the Malala Yousefs, Greta Thunbergs and countless yet-to-be named younger people – will hopefully learn from our past and do better. Maybe they will clean up the older generations’ messes.

Our world most certainly needs a resurgence, a reinvigorating of not only hope, thoughts and prayers but of action, resistance and taking a stand for those who are forced to kneel.


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