Thursday, December 11, 2008

‘Droits de l'homme’: World’s best kept secret

Yesterday was Human Rights Day, also the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The fervor for HR should not last for only one day. In the coming days, let us act, commemorate, celebrate. The Inquirer is starting a series today.

If, as an Amnesty International official once said, the UDHR is one of the world's best kept secrets, then human rights defenders are indeed an endangered species. “Best kept secret” because despite the 60-year-old declaration, rights are continuously being violated all over the world by those who either are not in on the “secret” or choose to pretend they know nothing about it.

I was at the 50th anniversary celebration in Paris 10 years ago in 1998. Allow me to wax nostalgic.

There we were, at the grand Palais de Chaillot, together with some 500 people from all over the world, attending the Human Rights Defenders Summit. It was there that the UDHR was unanimously adopted on a chilly December day in 1948.

There we were, at the same historic place, near the banks of the River Seine, across from the Eiffel Tower. Same time, same place, same near-zero degrees weather as it was in 1948. But the mood was far from somber. There was our 1998 generation, a generation that did not see the horrors of a world war but saw horrors of a different kind.

The biggies were there. Nobel Peace Prize winners: Tibet's Dalai Lama, Guatemala's Rigoberta Menchu, Argentina's Adolfo Esquievel, East Timor's Jose Ramos Horta and Bishop Ximenes Belo. Even Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi came out bigger than life on the video screen to deliver her message.

UN secretary general Kofi Annan and France's president Jacques Chirac delivered messages. Annan later received 10 million pledges for human rights collected by summit main convenor Amnesty International (itself a Nobel winner).

On the fun side there were the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Alanis Morisette, Axelle Red, Peter Gabriel and other groups rocking for droits de l'homme (human rights) at the huge Bercy stadium. The ever smiling Dalai Lama was the concert's curtain raiser and exhorter of the youthful audience who gave him a thunderous applause.

But most of all, there were the 500 or so not-so-famous human rights defenders who had long been deeply and quietly immersed amongst their people, who had suffered and paid the price for raising their voices to defend the voiceless. Mothers and widows, women's rights advocates, so many lawyers, a few journalists, NGO workers, academicians, social workers, grassroots leaders.

The Palais de Chaillot, venue of the Human Rights Defenders Summit was bursting with people of different colors, nationalities, faiths, professions and painful experiences.

(I have kept Air France's in-flight magazine which had, for its cover, the logo of the 50th anniversary and devoted many pages of its December issue to human rights. It's a collector's item that should be among the exhibits in 2048.)

The 50th anniversary gathering was actually a summit called “The Human Rights Defenders Summit” not “The Human Rights Victims Summit.”

But why were the defenders, and not the victims, the ones coming together? But who is victim, who is defender? Defenders end up as victims too. And many victims have risen up to become defenders themselves. I like the word defender because it projects energy and strength. Continuously projecting victimhood is projecting defeat and weakness.

What is a human rights defender? It is “any person, well-known or not, who acts alone, in a group or in an association to promote, implement, apply and conform with all the fundamental rights guaranteed under the UN Declaration of Human Rights.”

One of the aims of the summit then was “to defend the human rights defenders because, despite the efforts of the UN and governments over the last 50 years, the protection and support for defenders is still weak.” Defend the defenders, because their situation has never been as grave as it is today, draw attention to their isolation and the danger they face every day.

Taken up were six urgent topics, human rights in relation to: impunity, armed conflict, extreme poverty, women's rights, racism, protection and promotion of children's rights and racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance.

Ten years later, I ask, where are we now? I think of the scores of Filipino journalists who’ve been murdered in the past few years.

If you read the account by David Pitts on how the UN Declaration was drafted and signed 60 years ago, you'd be amazed that it saw the light of day. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee that included, among others, Charles Malik of Lebanon, P.C. Chang of China, John Humphrey of Canada and Rene Cassin of France. Chang had wanted something that “incorporate(d) the ideas of Confucius as well as Thomas Aquinas.”

UN member states at that time could not easily form a consensus on the rights of women and racial minorities, religious liberty, the point at which human life began, the extent to which freedom of speech should be protected, the right to dissent and economic and social rights. We're still at it, aren't we?

And the most serious disagreements, Pitts wrote, stemmed from the entirely different concepts of the West and the Soviet bloc of such human rights principles as freedom and democracy.

The Declaration, by the way, has no force of law, but it has inspired so many legally binding international covenants and agreements. It has survived. We must celebrate, and we must worker harder. I hope the next 40 years will be much better than the 60 that have passed.