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
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.