What’s it all about, Alfie?

The question was as probing in 1966 when Burt Bacharach posed the question as it is now. The FT tells us today that after 30 years of globalization, that party has ended with the war in Ukraine.  While we are drilling dust on Mars, it has become increasingly apparent that the post-WWII complacency as it relates to life on earth is being disrupted by changes sourced to pandemics, geo-political conflict and climate. The guarantees against a third World War were expected to be resolved by the zero-sum game of mutual non-proliferation treaties and nuclear power balances. The Nuremburg trials, followed by trials at Special Courts in Sierra Leone and Arusha, were supposed to send the message to despots that their deeds would not go unpunished.  The human rights and development community honed its ability to mobilize quickly in the aftermath of atrocities, but through no fault of its own, less so on the preventative side of things.

For sure these last several weeks have shown us that there are lines to be drawn in the sand, but regrettably they are being drawn by those on the wrong side of righteousness.  The world community has been entirely too reactive and has not stood up with steely resolve to refuse to see another massacre of innocents. With myopic attention to righting past wrongs, it has failed to deploy its global machinery to prevent atrocities—it has relinquished its authority over the protection and preservation of human rights to those who would oppress, deprive and violate what the United Nations was supposed to have achieved in 1948. That instrument, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the mechanisms that enforce it, have been emasculated by the veto, where it should have been absolute in its enforcement and power to prevent its gross violations. When the UDHR says that it recognizes the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” those words are ciphers if nothing can be done to shield those it purports to protect.

The UN was created in October 1945 in the hopes of preventing another world war.  The Security Council has five permanent members, each of whom has the right of veto. In the recent vote designed to end the military offensive in Ukraine, only Russia, the subject of the vote, vetoed. It is a basic principle of good governance and rule of law, a key underpinning of the UN Charter, that the party about whom a vote is taken must, in recognition of a clear conflict, refrain from participating in the vote. Why then does the UN Security Council architecture permit itself to be paralyzed from action against a rogue member, defying every principle on which its very existence rests?

The UN writes on its website that its history is “still being written.”  If indeed, this is so, then write this: Change the rules. Stop permitting veto where the subject of the vote is the offending member state, and where the matter involves an extraordinary and universally acknowledged violation of human rights, of the foundational sort intended to be protected by the UN Charter itself and the UNDHR (not to mention a host of other instruments and conventions). If the United Nations is to be more than an impressive neutral urban campus where the world’s emissaries meet and talk, deploy the same unified global action that was expected to preserve peace in 1945, and halt this unfounded aggression. When the dust settles, the development community will engage with robust vigor to document the wrongs, seek their redress, offer humanitarian aid and start the rebuilding process. But, just because the global human rights community is efficient at providing humanitarian aid and rebuilding the aftermath of atrocities, does not mean forsaking the opportunity to prevent or stop the atrocity in progress.  In the words of the Bacharach song: “Are we meant to take more than we give?” –The world and Ukraine has taken enough. Time to change course. Human Rights need not always be viewed through the rear view mirror.  

Human Rights: To say is not to do.

Lately my work has taken me to examining the roots of some basic human rights concepts, among them, freedoms–freedom of assembly, freedom of speech–freedom to be the person you are, to explore your passions, and express yourself in the myriad of ways that humans do, without arbitrary restraint.

What strikes me is how basic the concept of freedom is, and how far back efforts by persons, leaders or political movements have gone to restrict it. My readings have late are focused on  the ancient Persian Empire in the days of Cyrus and Darius. Then, and even  before in the glory days of Babylonia, the concept of freedom, represented in the cuneiform word or phrase “ama-gi” found expression.

It is said that the word and concept of freedom first appears in written form when the new king, upon ama-giinvestiture (or thereafter, as an annual gracious ritual) would grant a form of amnesty to young males in servitude for unpaid taxes to the king, granting them “ama-gi” –permission to “return to mother.” The phrase eventually evolved into the concept of one being set “free,” thus, the very early iteration of freedom as we know it today.

What is striking about working in human rights in this century is the utter failure of modern day leaders to recognize freedom as an entitlement, an essential part of humanity–something individuals have sought and valued for  thousands of years.  As far back as we can tell, people eschewed servitude and honored those who saved them from it.

Assuming that many of today’s leaders are literate and have some basic understanding of history, leads one to wonder if they aren’t truly delusional, somehow believing that eventually they will escape the fate that all human kind faces:  Dust.  Perhaps they have never visited a museum and found themselves in the company of a “great” Pharaoh resting in a temperature controlled glass case being  gawked at by the masses–and those were the good guys.

Climbing the hill to get the world to recognize basic human rights is presumably  a challenge that was met long ago, now embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).   Incredibly, in 2014 with several thousand years of civilized societies under our belt, there is  still an inordinately large number of persons who dictate to others what they can or should do with their lives, following an agenda that eschews every morsel of basic  human rights as we know it.

One would have thought that with all the technological and scientific advances, collective mankind would have figured out a mechanism to identify and remove those who  fail to honor basic human rights. Quite the opposite. In fact, there are wolves among those charged with guarding the hen house. Consider carefully the countries which have been selected as caretakers of human rights by selection to the UN Human Rights Council.

Were Klout  to give  the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights a score,  it would be low, very low.  If the document  is to be anything more than words on paper paying lip service to an aspiration, there have to be real consequences to those who derogate it.  To that end, there is some encouragement in the fact that a petition is currently in circulation that calls for the  removal from the United Nations Human Rights Council to say is not to docertain countries with dismal human rights records.

To those who stand up to tyranny, your voices are being heard. Do not give up. You are asking for nothing less than to live the precious few years we all have on this planet as the human being, with all your frailties and strengths, motivated by the hope of leaving a mark or legacy on the planet that represents the best humanity has to offer. We are with you. Your struggle is our struggle.  And to those working in the human rights arena be guided by this:  To say is not to do.