Sixty years ago, in 1948, the General Assembly of the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On Dec 10, that declaration was reaffirmed as Human Rights Day. This extraordinary document was a response to the horrors of World War 2. It became the first global statement that all human beings have equality and dignity. This document has been translated in more than 360 languages, has inspired the constitutions of many newly formed independent states, has seeded many human rights treaties and instruments, and has inspired the founding of many human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. The Declaration is both a moral guidepost and a practical yardstick to deal with complex actions of governments.
The Declaration remains as relevant today as the day it was adopted. But the freedom and rights enshrined in it are not a reality for everyone, and are increasingly under attack. The 60th anniversary of the declaration is being commemorated by the UN for a whole year, by many activities designed to educate, defend and promote the rights in the declaration.
There have been major human rights achievements. The International Criminal Court is an independent permanent court that investigates and prosecutes individuals accused of the most heinous crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. What is crucial is that it is now more than halfway to its goal of universal acceptance—105 countries have become “states parties”, with however, the US, Russia and China not yet members.
The Court currently has proceedings in 4 situations, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, northern Uganda, and the Sudanese region of Darfur. Many individuals from the former Yugoslavia have been already prosecuted. The International Criminal Tribunal, based in Arusha, Tanzania, has investigated the brutalities in Rwanda. 27 people have been convicted, 5 acquitted.
The ICC faces complex problems in apprehending indicted subjects, particularly in Uganda, the Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia. There is also a moral dilemma. Legal action complicates the efforts to reach negotiated peace settlements in Uganda and in the Sudan. Compromises for peace should not allow those guilty of the worst atrocities to go free. Where to draw the balance?
A bitter Sarajevo joke: When someone kills a man, he is put in prison; if he kills 20, he is declared insane; if he kills 200,000 he is invited to a peace conference.
A major challenge for human rights is the deprivations of vulnerable groups and global injustice stemming from climate change. The rich countries are responsible for 70% of cumulative green house emissions. It is the people least responsible who are suffering and will continue to suffer the most. Scientists warn that floods will increase as glaciers melt and sea levels rise. Monsoons in India will intensify, as will droughts in Africa. Communities that rely heavily on agriculture will suffer from food scarcity and health issues.
In early December the UN held a major environmental conference in Bali to extend the Kyoto Treaty due to expire in 2012. Lack of action will affect everyone and most quickly and painfully the 2.6 billion people living on less than $2 a day. Rich countries must cut their own carbon emissions and help the poor to adapt. The solution will demand changes in the types and uses of energy, and the political will to make these changes. Part of the solution will be technological innovations that only the developed countries can afford.
One good outcome: at the Bali Conference the developed nations agreed to speed the transfer of technology to cope with climate change to the developing countries. The agreement must be followed by action. What we do now will affect both our own and our children’s future. A Chinese proverb says, “One generation plants a tree: the next gets the shade.” The shade we need is for all the generations to come.
Phyllis Ehrenfeld, President of National Service Conference of the American Ethical Union, and Representative to the UN.
Dr Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU Representative to the UN.