Fw: Human Rights Day
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From: "Shestack, Jerome J." <JShestack@...>
Sent: Monday, December 10, 2007 4:08:20 PM
Subject: Human Rights Day
Human Rights Day - A Somber Anniversary
By Jerome J. Shestack
Today is Human Rights Day. Fifty-nine years ago, on December 10, 1948, the fledgling United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt was then Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights. She hailed the UN Declaration as a “Bill of Rights for the World.” And December 10 became known as Human Rights Day. This should be a day for celebration. Sadly, it is not.
The Universal Declaration came about in the aftermath of World War II. The tragic Nazi experience and the Holocaust exposed the horror of a brutal regime in which the individual counted for nothing. The cry “Never Again” was translated by those who gathered in San Francisco to establish the United Nations into a resolve to protect the individual by international law.
The Universal Declaration recognizes the “inherent dignity” and the “equal and inalienable rights” of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. The Declaration then sets forth the basic human rights for civilization. Twenty of its articles deal with freedom of speech, religion and assembly, freedom from torture, the right to a fair trial, an array of civil and political rights much like our own Bill of Rights. Ten articles deal with economic and social rights such as healthcare, education, social security and other rights which are elements of social justice in a civilized society. What has happened since the Declaration was adopted? The Universal Declaration was slowly fleshed out by years of arduous lawmaking, with specific human rights treaties dealing with genocide, civil, political and economic rights, torture, racial discrimination, rights of women, rights of children and other fundamental rights. Building an edifice of international human rights law was a tremendous achievement. Still, law without compliance or implementation is illusory. And the sad fact is that for some 30 years after the Declaration, repressive governments and human right abusers prevailed in major parts of the world.
A sea change came in the late 1970s. The communications revolution exposed human rights abuses around the world. Human rights observance was seen as promoting peace and the rule of law. Many Western nations, including the United States, saw human rights as advancing their national interests.
Human rights advancement became an objective of the foreign policy of the United States and other Western nations. Human rights rose high on the global agenda. Human rights organizations became more widespread and more insistent. By the mid-80s, repressive governments had fallen in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Spain and Portugal. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and shortly thereafter so did the Communist empire. Emerging democracies were on the upsurge in dozens of nations. It looked as if we might finally realize Archibald MacLeish’s early prediction that “the true revolutionary movement of our time is the human rights revolution.”
But it was not to be. Before the end of the century, the spectre of “ethnic cleansing” arose and genocide and crimes against humanity erupted in Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, Sudan, and other countries. Humanitarian law, which had developed in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and which was supposed to impose humane standards and accountability in wartime conflicts, proved inadequate to deal with intra-state conflicts and their tragic consequences. The Western powers might have used their military might to bring about preventive measures, but they acted too late, or too little, or mostly not at all. The UN proved largely helpless to prevent or stop ethnic conflict and even genocide, as in Sudan. And the UN Commission on Human Rights, then and now, was hijacked by repressive nations.
The cause of human rights received another blow with the sharp increase in terrorism. Fear of terrorism has trumped adherence to liberties, even in nations such as the U.S. and England. Where once this nation was viewed as a beacon of human rights and justice, that reputation has been sullied and lost as a result of our disregard of international law and toleration of human rights abuses, all in the name of security. Once in the vanguard of human rights advocacy and observance, we are now seen around the world as having compromised and negated our own lofty standards.
So where are we on the somber anniversary of the Universal Declaration? There are, to be sure, some beacons of light around the world. The ratification of the International Criminal Court by some 100 nations (but not the U.S.) is one. The steadfast vigor of non-governmental human rights organizations is another. The existence of a body of human rights and humanitarian law which shame those who flout it, is another. And there are still untold numbers of human rights advocates who live in repressive nations, and will not remain silent.
But that is hardly enough, certainly not enough for the United States. In this nation, the challenge remains whether we will act to regain our moral authority. Can we show the world that concern about security does not necessitate trumping and abandoning human rights and humanitarian law? I don’t know.
But I do know that without these rights, peace is at risk. I do know that without human rights, a rule of law does not exist. I do know that the concept of a just society which recognizes the dignity and worth of the individual is powerful and enduring.
What we need now is the will to reclaim our lost moral authority. It is often said that where there is a will, there is a way. The current Congress can both demonstrate the will and find the way. If it does, and if we, the citizenry, can see that it does, then perhaps Human Rights Day can again be a day for celebration.
Jerome J. Shestack
Jerome J. Shestack, Esquire
Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen LLP
Direct Dial: 215-977-2290
Direct Fax: 215-977-2787
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