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It Is Time to Return to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights






By Irene Khan (*)

LONDON,  (IPS)   .- Terrorists go on a rampage of senseless killing in

Mumbai. Exhausted and terrified refugees pour into Uganda to escape

the fighting in eastern Congo. Ten people are executed in Iran. Three

hundred thousand civilians are displaced in northern Sri Lanka.

Slowing rates of economic growth cast deep gloom around the world. Not

a particularly auspicious moment to celebrate the 60th anniversary of

the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Anniversaries are a time for reflection and review. It is true that in

many respects the human rights situation today is vastly improved from

that in 1948. The equality of women, the rights of children, a free

press and a fair judicial system are no longer disputed concepts but

widely accepted standards that many countries have achieved and others

are aspiring to. But it is equally true that injustice, impunity and

inequality remain the hallmarks of our time.


If there is one lesson to be drawn from recent events in Mumbai, it is

that our liberties remain precious, under threat, and in need of

constant vigilance and protection. Governments have a duty to protect

people from terrorism, and they will be under pressure -as happened

after 9/11- to tighten security. But in that process they must not

repeat the mistakes of the US-led War on Terror. Detaining people

indefinitely, holding them in legal limbo in prisons like Guantanamo

camp, condoning or conducting torture, weakening due process and the

rule of law are not the way forward. Free societies are attacked by

terrorists precisely because they are free. To erode our freedoms in

the name of security is to hand victory to the terrorists.


It is not enough, though, simply to hold on to our rights. We must

expand the benefits of human rights to all who are deprived,

discriminated and excluded. The global financial crisis has shown how

wrong was the assumption that unrestrained growth would inevitably

lead to prosperity, and that the rising tide would lift all boats. The

tide has become a tsunami swallowing not only big financial

institutions but also the homes and hopes of many poor people around

the world. Millions of people are being pushed back into poverty even

as billions of dollars are being invested in bailing out those very

institutions that have brought us to this state.


Wealthier nations have resources and established safety nets to help

those who fall behind in their country. The poor in poor and emerging

economies have to fend for themselves. Those with the least margin of

survival will pay the most for the greed of the bankers in Wall Street

and the City of London. Women working in a garment factory in Ho Chi

Minh City in Vietnam, miners hauling minerals from Mano River in West

Africa, workers at an industrial estate in the Pearl River Delta in

China, telephone operators at an outsourced office in Gurgaon, India

will bear the heaviest brunt of the economic decline. If falling

remittances and international aid force governments to cut back on

social programmes and poverty eradication projects, the consequences

could be disastrous.


In economic terms, growth is being wiped out. In human rights terms,

the rights to food, education, housing, decent work and health are

under attack. We face a dual challenge: fulfilling human rights in

order to eradicate poverty and preserving human rights in the face of



Human rights are universal ­every person is born free and equal in

rights and dignity. Human rights are indivisible ­all rights, whether

economic, social, civil, political or cultural- are equally important.

There is no hierarchy of rights. Free speech is as essential as the

right to education, the right to health as valuable as the right to a

fair trial.


The tectonic plates of global power are shifting, and there is now

realization among world leaders that they must work together if they

are to deal with the economic maelstrom. The invitation extended by

the US Administration recently to twenty leading economies of the

world ­including China, Saudi Arabia, India, and Brazil- to plan a

global response to the economic crisis is a concrete sign of the new

drive to be inclusive.


Being inclusive does not only mean fitting more chairs around the

existing table. It also means signing up to global values. The

Universal Declaration provides those set of values.


In 1948, in the face of the enormous challenges, world leaders turned

to the Universal Declaration as the affirmation of their common

humanity and the blue print for their collective security. Today’s

world leaders must do the same. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)


(*) Irene Khan is the Secretary General of Amnesty International.