Sunday, December 14, 2014

Human Rights: What Your Government Doesn't Want You to Know

by Nomad

How can human rights be upheld when so few people are even aware of what they actually entail?
How can governments be held accountable when they have convinced their citizens that there may be certain times and certain situations when humans don't deserve their inherent rights?

Ideals that Bind Us Together

What with the revelations of last week, most people in the US might have missed the fact that last Wednesday was an important date. In 1950, the United Nations designated October 10 "Human Rights Day." Admittedly, every day should be a human rights day, this particular day is meant to remind us 
"that each one of us, everywhere, at all times is entitled to the full range of human rights, that human rights belong equally to each of us and bind us together as a global community with the same ideals and values."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called upon member nations 
"to honour their obligation to protect human rights every day of the year. I call on people to hold their governments to account. "
Only the day before, the Senate released a demoralizing and shocking report on CIA practices during the Bush Administration. It revealed to the American people and to the whole world even a superpower could justify the shocking forms of torture.
So, these allegations of violations of human rights could not possibly have come at a worse time.

The Downside of Being a Leader

Of course, the acts outlined by the Senate report wouldn't have brought much shame to many countries in the world.
As shameful as the report was, looking at this from an amoral view, compared to what dreadful things can be done to a human being, it could have been much worse. We cannot begin to imagine what a government can do when it thinks it is above the law.
Still in the end, there's no getting around it: what went on was inexcusable ..(though former vice president and others attempted to find excuses.)

For the US. committing human rights violations must be considered far worse than other countries. If that seems slightly unfair there is a good reason for it.  , The US (and European nations too) must set the highest standard- not the average or the lower standard. This is the downside of being a superpower and a self-proclaimed leader of the free world. 

The sad reality is that human rights violations as defined by the UN happen all the time, all over the world. What's amazing is how few people have read or understood what some have rightfully considered the United Nations' greatest achievement, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Hard Won Lessons

Adopted by the member countries in December 1948, the UDHR evolved primarily as a response to the horrors of World War II. The member nations of the UN had decided that there were lessons to learn even as what had once been the center of civilization lay in ruins. We had, they said, to ensure that this could never happen again.

Its preamble reflects why such a definitive statement is even necessary:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms...,

Yes, it is a tad lofty of the common person's understanding. But then consider that this was, without question, one of the greatest statements on human rights in the history of humanity. Pope John Paul II called the Declaration "one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time" Flowery language, therefore, can be forgiven but the sidebar at this site explains each of the articles found in the declaration.
The most important point found in this important document is that human rights are inherent. These rights are simply a part of what it means to exist a human. And anything less is not a human existence and cannot or should not be tolerated. Critically, these rights are not given or taken away by governments.  

It is as true in North Korea, Syria, Russia or Iran as it is in the United States or France or Germany. That being said, governments will never stop trying to convince their citizens they snatch your rights from you as they wish. 

Abstentions and Objections

Proclamations, cynics will tell you, are all well and good. The problem is that so few nations- when push comes to shove- are willing to abide by the provisions. Some nations approve of some but not all of the articles.

In fact, in 1948. the UDHR was adopted by the General Assembly by a vote of 48 in favor, none against, and eight abstentions. In a sign of the approaching Cold War, the Soviet bloc abstained from the UN vote.
(Eleanor Roosevelt, the chief architect of the declaration, speculated it was due to Article 13, which provided the freedom of movement, as well as the right of citizens to leave their countries.)

Saudi Arabia and South Africa also refused to vote. Today, although most Islamic nations have signed on, some of them claim the principles run against Sharia Law (presumably the objectionable article is one which states that all human beings are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution as well as the right "to change his religion or belief." This along with other principles, they claim, represents a Western bias. 

In each case, the claim was made by governments that for particular reasons, this or that universal principle did not apply. For South Africa, apartheid served as its excuse for human rights. For the US, it was the necessity of defense, that torture was a regrettable tool that the CIA had to use to thwart a possible repeat of 911. 

Accepting non-­compliance for whatever reason undermines the entire purpose of a universal declaration. This declaration, as human rights lawyers would explain, already represents "the international community’s most fundamental values embodied in peremptory norms of international law."  

For this reason, necessity can never be successfully invoked as an excuse. The Institute for International Law in a 2009 working paper, State Responsibility, Necessity and Human Rights addresses this rationale for torture:
Hence, it can be said that necessity can never excuse non-compliance with the jus cogens prohibition of torture, even in a ticking time bomb scenario where only resort to torture can purportedly avert disaster. This does not mean that such scenarios are never put forward to convince the public of the necessity of noncompliance with certain peremptory norms.
This is, by the way, the excuse that Dick Cheney has applied as his excuse for- as he had admitted- authorizing torture.

When a Superpower Falls Short

Such attempts to be exemptions from the universal declaration are not uncommon.

The United States, despite touting itself as a moral authority, has been accused of picking and choosing which articles it will obey. Article 5, for example, prohibits the use of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which must include medically unnecessary rectal feeding.   Article 9 prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention or exile which should have made Guantanamo detention center a violation of the declaration. 

There are other examples unrelated to the War on Terror, like Article 7 which specifies that everybody is equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. The African American community has always had a good case to make there.

In light of the revelation of NSA spying, one could also cite possible violations of Article 12, enshrining the universal right of privacy. All of these points are arguable, of course.  

That's not to say that, just because its own record is not perfect, the US has no right or duty to call out human rights abuse. Indeed, a common objection by nations that, as a matter of routine, ignore the principles of the Universal Declaration is to point to other nations who have in the past engaged in comparable behavior. 

However, in this case, it is better to fall short while trying to improve than not to try at all. And as most mothers will tell you, two wrongs do not make a right. The real problem is when the US fails to stick to the principles of human rights it makes it that much easier for all nations to dismiss them too.

The Danger of Remaining Ignorant

Generally speaking, governments would prefer that their citizens remain ignorant of their rights and accepting of the injustices and whims. Things run smoother -for dictators and bureaucrats if nobody questions the laws. In the process,  a lot of inhuman acts can be committed and excused. In the process, without the right to say no, humankind loses something special: its free will.

For this reason, we all must be made fully aware- to the point of memorization -each of the 30 articles. Here is an easy to read poster to help everybody know what it means to live like a human being.