Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On World Human Rights Day

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations.  It's a beautiful document and you should take a break right away to read it here. Given its age, it's natural that it should appear a little dated - for example it freely uses "his" and "him" instead of trying harder to be gender-neutral, it makes no specific mention of gender harrassment, let alone LGBT issues, and its first seven paragraphs open with "Whereas" until in the eighth one we are finally rewarded with a "Now therefore...". But the spirit shines right through it and some of the lines still give me the chills. More below.

Somewhat to my own surprise, as I grow older I find myself more and more motivated to support human rights and more and more concerned when they are violated. From an ethical standpoint, the statement of universal rights is obviously correct - but from a practical view it is just as obviously unpopular, embodying as it does the rather quaint notion that all human beings are equal. Personally, I've never met anyone who truly believes this! It seems to be an essential part of human nature to look up with awe and respect at the rich and powerful, and in the same breath look down with contempt at the poor and unfortunate, so "equal" is not the most familiar way of thinking. While equality appeals powerfully to me, even I can't claim to have always been sincere or committed about implementing it. Human fallibility, after all.

I love the opening paragraph of the UDHR despite the fact that it dangles without a resolution (and continues to dangle for six more paragraphs!):

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

"Inherent dignity" and "inalienable rights" are two of the most musical phrases I've ever heard.

The lack of appreciation of human rights in India is widespread. Most Indians would be baffled to learn that:

Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

This runs strictly counter to the traditional approach when dealing with suspected criminals, viz: "Let's beat him till he confesses". Education does not always help. The socially conservative middle-class, by whom one is so often surrounded within academia, may express a vague sympathy with the concept of human rights until you get to specifics. Then the gloves come off and it's back to "why don't we beat him till he confesses?". On two separate occasions, Directors of different Institutes have told me in a scolding tone: "You always talk about human rights", as if I was praising a particularly smelly variety of fish. Those were proud moments for me.

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