Thursday, December 10, 2009

Happy International Human Rights Day!

Some time ago, a King in England signed a piece of paper establishing certain rights of men. King John signed the Magna Carta in part because he was afraid he'd be overthrown by revolting barons who were angry at the monarch's abuse of power. By no means did the document care about the rights of ordinary people - it was meant to protect the wealthy barons' properties. Yet the rights of the rich it protected gradually evolved into universal rights in the nearly 800 years that have passed since it was drafted.

Three hundred years after John put his signature on the Magna Carta, the Twelve Articles of the Black Forest were drafted in Germany by peasants who demanded certain rights as Christians. The articles are considered by many to be the first record of human rights in the world. That is not to say that human rights issues were not being debated and implemented in other parts of the world. Akbar the Great, the Mughal Emperor, established religious rights for all during his reign in the same century. The British Bill of Rights was drafted in the late seventeenth century. The United States of America was founded on the principle of universal human rights:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." - United States Declaration of Independence, 1776
The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 is a precursor document to modern human rights.

We have come a long way since we lived in caves, ate raw meat, and died by the age of thirty, haven't we? Yet, everywhere we look we see human rights violations, from Aun Sun Sui Kyi's house arrest in Burma to the Iranian regime's crackdown on student protests in Iran to the United States' detention without trial of prisoners in Gitmo to the apartheid in Israel to terrorists blowing up lives in the name of religion to Uganda proposing the death penalty for homosexuals to migrant worker abuse in Lebanon to the Swiss banning of minarets...Sometimes it makes our heads spin, makes us feel like there is no hope, that we should give up, that humanity is so corrupted by its own selfish impulses there will never be any solution to our global problems. Media bombards us every day with new stories about injustice, new terrors to be wary of, new deaths that have come at the hands of psychos. It's easy to dwell on the atrocities that take place on this planet. It's easy to succumb to the forces of disillusionment and despair. It's easy to let ourselves drown in the seas of human suffering, to let our hearts burn in the fires of hatred and ignorance, to let our minds be swallowed by the psychology of victimhood.

Hope is hard.

Hope is what keeps the world spinning. All of the progress we've made throughout human history hasn't been made by those who wallow in the pits of despair but by those cognizant of the future, by those who can imagine a planet where people are equal, where people have enough food to eat and clean water to drink and clean air to breathe, where people aren't killing each other in the name of their own version of a Creator. Human rights martyrs like Martin Luther King, Jr. did not dwell on suffering but envisioned a world like this.
"...when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
The dream of Dr. King has made progress in the 36 year since he spoke to a million people in front of the memorial to President Lincoln, another martyr who died for the cause of human rights. Yet, we still have so far to go. Sometimes it may seem like we're going backwards or that those who profess a faith in the rights of humanity are hypocrites because they violate human rights. Such is the criticism of President Obama, who accepted a Nobel Peace Prize today.

Those who pursue human rights are not perfect. We tend to view our martyrs as perfect and forget their flaws. We put people like Gandhi on pedestals and forget he had an army of critics. Lincoln himself was something of a racist, but he always believed slavery was wrong and that all men should never be deprived of life, liberty, and property. His work for the cause of Emancipation and the bloody civil war that entailed exposed him to African-Americans and his views on race began to change. It was a speech in which he supported the right for blacks to vote that so incensed John Wilkes Booth, he murdered him two days later.

You have to remember, humanity is still evolving. People's attitudes evolve. There will never be an End to History so long as homo sapiens sapiens roams the planet. We have not reached a point in our history where we are capable of ending our problems as quickly as it takes us to tweet them. Just the fact that we as a species generally recognize something called "Human Rights" is wondrous, something to be marveled at and revered. Sure, many times the path that we think leads to progress turns out to be covered with thorns or full of poisonous snakes and hungry beasts. Sometimes we have to turn around and start over. Sometimes we get so lost that it seems like we will never reach our destination, Dr. Kings dream. But we're gonna get there some day. Just look at how far we've already come.

While human rights heroes like King, Lincoln, and Gandhi have become immortal, we can't forget all of the others who work for human rights without recognition. Today we should remember them, remember all of the civil society organizations across the world that fight for human rights, those who give speeches, who hold conferences, who write the reports demanded by a grantmaking organization, who tweet and blog about human rights, who create awareness about issues. They might not do the glorious work, but they are just as important to progress.

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