No33 January 1999.1
Fifty years of Human Rights
10th December was the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. Yet there is no note of celebration perceptible in comments like: "There is never anything but bad news... Violence is everywhere...Darkness wherever we look...It is the Great Depression again...Where are we going?" We hear such remarks every day.
Why is it that we are always running down humanity in general and our leaders in particular? Is it in the hope of exorcising our own evil spirits? Or is it the influence of the media? Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that many people seem to think that the world is going to the dogs. Our grandparents thought the same. Their favourite targets then were the parish priest and local politicians.
Has there then been no progress in the fifty years since the UN Declaration?
Let us think of Canada first. We are told that there has never been so much poverty. We are bombarded with reports about poor children and with demands that the government do something about them. Twenty-four per cent of young people under twenty-four years of age are living in poverty. The situation is even worse among the native people, the handicapped, recent immigrants. On 7 December the Canadian Council for Social Development stated: "Single-parent families are in a particularly difficult situation and many of them receive social assistance." Even the UN itself has joined in the chorus. The Report of its Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Affairs (UNESCO) criticised six Canadian Provinces, blaming them for the growing impoverishment of the citizens of one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Too often the authorities are more interested in reducing the budget deficit than in reducing poverty. Quebec is criticised for linking social security benefits to the obligation to look for work. There is clear discrimination against two groups of people: those under twenty-four and those on social security.
If we turn now to the wider world, we can recognize with gratitude that there have been no World Wars for fifty years, but there have still been hundreds of local wars which have killed and injured more people than the two World Wars of this century combined. Only the battlefield has changed. War has been exported to the Third World. This brings large profits to the countries of the West, while they remain themselves unharmed. What is the arms trade worth to our rich countries? Meanwhile parasitic multinational countries, the fruit of our capitalist ideas, grow fat on Asian, African and South American corpses and raise our standards of living.
We may think of Kivu, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Under the pretext of defending their frontiers, foreign forces from Rwanda and Burundi are occupying adjacent territory, thus dragging the local population into the ethnic conflict and depriving them of their fundamental right of self-determination. The consequent rise of local armed resistance groups means the usual torment for the poor people. The expansionist programmes of these occupying forces are in flagrant violation of the Charters of both the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity. If nothing is done to arrest these developments, Africa will remain for a long time in a state of chronic instability and armed conflict. The Great Lakes Region in particular will remain a running sore in the very heart of Africa.
There is no denying the darkness. Are we to conclude that the fifty candles of the United Nations Charter have been extinguished? Or have they ever been lit?
"If nothing is done..." But is it really the case that nothing has been done in the last fifty years?
It is true that countries which are signatories to the Charter are every day violating the "Rights" listed in the Declaration. Summary executions, illegal imprisonment, torture, limitations on freedom of speech, association and religion: such things are commonplace. We should not however think only of the breaches of the Charter. There have been gains since 1948. Gandhi's words have often been quoted, but they are none the less true for that: "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." The UN lit a candle fifty years ago when it issued its Declaration of Human Rights. It gave ordinary people the sense that they had the right to equal treatment and that governments were obliged to respect that right. We can sense the influence of the UN Declaration in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, which has uncovered crimes committed during the dark days of apartheid. The Declaration also gave people a new awareness of their own responsibility for Justice and Peace. Private organisms like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Development and Peace, Third World Action, have enabled ordinary citizens to become involved with the people of other countries who are subject to injustices. International Tribunals have been set up, prosecutions instituted, judicial action taken. Those responsible for genocide or crimes against humanity have been tracked down and brought to justice, sometimes after twenty or thirty years of luxurious retirement in some rich country. The candles are slowly being lit.
We might listen to some prophetic voices. Archbishop Emmanuel Kataliko of Bukavu: "As pastor of the People of God, I address myself to the faithful of Bukavu and to men and women of good will. We must realize that peace is not in the first place the result of armed combat but rather of the more difficult human cultural and spiritual combat. We urgently appeal to local authorities to stop soldiers from looting villages and parishes in the interior of the country. We urge them to stop all the hunting down of people and to halt the vast number of arrests. Such practices do nothing to restore an atmosphere of serenity. We appeal once more to the conscience and sense of responsibility of military and political authorities, both national and international, to work for the construction of a durable peace which will be profitable to all." (Bukavu, 5 December 1998)
We may think too of the Vietnamese lady, Kim Thuc. She was a victim of American napalm bombs and became a symbol for a whole generation when she fled naked along a Vietnam road. "To pass from a war culture to a peace culture is not an impossible dream. It can become a reality if we truly want it to." Kim Thuc lives at the moment in Toronto and is an ambassador with UNESCO.
We are all acquainted with some organism which works for human rights. The Afrika Centre in Montreal (1644 rue St-Hubert), for example, organizes meetings to help Africans and Canadians to get to know each other better by discussing a variety of subjects of common interest. In particular, the Centre provides opportunities for rich people to meet poor people whom they would never otherwise see, and promotes activities which seek to present Africa in a positive light. This is one example of work for improving the world.
"Peace on earth to men of good will," is the Christmas message. A New Year will shortly be dawning, a year which will finally give way to the Year 2,000 and the next millennium. What are the little candles we can light to show the way to future peace? Each one no doubt must decide for himself or herself.
Here are some suggestions:
* Take part in the Walk for Peace with the Young of the World.
* Sign a petition for Third World Action.
* Join an organism dedicated to promoting international justice or development.
* Make a gift to Development and Peace or to a missionary community.
* Take part in a memorial service for victims of violence, (like that for the young women killed ten years ago at the Polytechnic Institute.)
* Pray for peace in the world.
* Buy a book about peace for your children.
* Be reconciled with a neighbour or relative.
* Wish each other peace during family feasts.
Our wish: Do not just keep the peace: spread it.
Paix (French). Shalom (Hebrew). Amahoro (Kinyarwanda). Amani (Kiswahili). Here (Bambara). Peace!
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.