In late September George W. Bush stood before the United Nations General Assembly and extolled a document whose sixtieth anniversary is being commemorated in a yearlong advocacy campaign that began December 10. The document is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations ratified by a vote of 48 to 0 on December 10, 1948, and which Bush hailed as “a landmark achievement in the history of human liberty,” a statement that made it hard not to wonder whether, before rising to the podium, he’d gotten around to reading it. “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” states Article 5 of the declaration. “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law,” affirms Article 6.
Bush’s speech unwittingly captured the paradox the human rights movement finds itself facing on the eve of the declaration’s sixtieth anniversary and Bush’s final year in office. No President has wrapped his foreign policy in loftier rhetoric–or done more to discredit the notion that America’s commitment to human rights is sincere. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” set against his Administration’s disgraceful record, has convinced much of the world that the promotion of universal rights is little more than a Trojan horse for Western imperialism, and made it easier for governments from Russia to Iran to crack down on opposition groups accused of importing foreign values into their countries.
How, at this low moment, might momentum be restored to the struggle for universal rights? One possibility was suggested not long ago in Atlanta, where several dozen human rights defenders gathered for a two-day conference hosted by the Carter Center. The event drew representatives from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America and sought to underscore how the sentiment expressed in the preamble of the declaration, which recognizes “the inherent dignity…of all members of the human family,” resonates with the teachings of at least one potentially powerful cross-cultural force: religion. “We have not adequately marshaled all the potential supporters of the Universal Declaration,” former President Jimmy Carter, a devout Baptist, stated in his opening remarks. “The major religions of the world need to be brought in.”
Whether the major religions actually want to be brought in is, of course, open to question: all too often in the past, religious leaders have lent their support to repressive governments and invoked the name of God to justify gross abuses against women, homosexuals and so-called nonbelievers. Human rights advocates have good reason to wonder whether, in Islamabad or in Alabama, people of faith would make for model allies. But those advocates ought to pause before dismissing all such people as foes. As Carter noted, scattered across the globe are large numbers of Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus who reject fundamentalist dogmas and share a basic commitment to the alleviation of suffering. Among them are people like Zainah Anwar, executive director of the Malaysia-based group Sisters in Islam, who attended the conference in Atlanta. Anwar is a practicing Muslim. She is also a feminist at the forefront of the campaign to end discrimination against women in her country. While her belief that Islam and full gender equality can be reconciled is contentious–as she acknowledged, the most strident and influential imams in many countries vociferously disagree–it is not a view all Muslims uniformly reject.
If the human rights movement wants to shed its image as the secular religion of a cloistered Western elite determined to impose its values on others–a perception particularly dangerous (and to some extent understandable) in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq–forging stronger alliances with people like Anwar seems essential. There is something else that could be done to remind people outside the West that the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration bear relevance to their lives. It was pointed out to me by Timothy Njoya, a Presbyterian minister from Kenya who also attended the Carter Center conference and who, in the 1980s and ’90s, helped lead the struggle for the first democratic elections in his country. Njoya has scars on his forehead and left hand from being tortured. Many Kenyans indeed view human rights as a Western concept, he said, but that’s because Western NGOs and governments have long tended to focus on one category of rights–civil and political rights like freedom of speech and assembly–while ignoring another–social and economic rights like the right to shelter, education, healthcare and work. The latter rights are arguably more pressing (and at least as flagrantly violated) in many parts of the world and were included in the Universal Declaration, yet they have routinely been ignored.
This may be changing. Hina Jilani, the UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, says that questions were often raised in the past at the UN whenever she drew attention to the work of activists battling poverty and environmental degradation. Her latest report, dedicated to such activists, drew a more supportive response. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have worked to bring more attention to social and economic rights in recent years. Even Bush, in his address to the General Assembly, called on member states to “free people from tyranny and violence, hunger and disease…poverty and despair.” Bush’s words might be taken more seriously if he turned the mirror on his own country. “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services,” states Article 25. It is a principle that citizens of the world’s wealthiest country would surely appreciate seeing observed a bit more consistently by Washington.