Human Rights Day 2017: A Broken World can be Fixed

Ben Cartwright and Ellioté Long

UCL Amnesty Society

I have previously written in this journal about the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its modern relevance; whilst some of its values may seem anachronistic, and others far from achievable in the current world, it is one of the few positive visions of the future presented to us, and a future that we may be able to achieve.

Now, on the 69th Human Rights Day, established to commemorate human rights worldwide, we must remind ourselves of the vision of Eleanor Roosevelt ,René Cassin and their contemporaries. The former was a champion of the universality of human rights, her values borne out of the Great Depression and the subsequent establishment of the American welfare state. The latter, by contrast, was an academic, a French jurist who used the principles of civil rights established in The Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen 1989. It was the influence of people, activists, such as these which put in motion an international movement against  hatred, division, and discrimination.

However, the past twelve months in particular have been a notably difficult time for those who strive to protect human rights. Take for instance the growing crisis in Yemen; some estimates suggest that more than 75 per cent of the population are suffering in the world’s worst – and arguably most under-reported – humanitarian crisis in recent years.

Other conflicts, such as the civil war in Syria, continue, On the other side of the Eurasian land mass, North Korea continues its missile tests, seemingly uninhibited by the international community.

Internationally, problems such as modern slavery and human trafficking continue unabashed; headlines such as “African slaves mutilated and cooked like kebabs by Libya gang” continue to shock. But with the non-stop flow of headlines such as these, we risk losing our empathy for our fellow humans; stories are diluted and we begin to close our minds to the issues.

Then there are the actions of the international powers. Donald Trump continues his presidency with a total disregard for human rights, as his previous advocacy for torture and the expansion of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp indicate. In recent days, his declaration that the US would recognise Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel risks upending regional tensions, and provoking the scorn of Arabian allies. What’s more, any hope of a successful Israel-Palestine peace process has been further kicked into the long grass. Instead, the spectre of an increasingly antagonistic Israel emboldened by Trump’s declaration threatens the limited self-determination of Palestinians, particularly in east Jerusalem and  the West Bank.

Putin’s Russia is also far from the most innocent of protagonists on the world stage. The abundance of stories suggesting Kremlin influence in foreign elections and referendums is worrying from the point of view of liberal democracies (such actions also render complicit organisations such as Facebook and Twitter, who passively condone such activity). At a domestic level in Russia, the abhorrent treatment of LGBT persons in Chechnya – the most recent and particularly extreme manifestation of the regime’s systematic violence against LGBT persons – has united the LGBT community and human rights activists against the regime.

In a world with prospects as moribund as the present, we must look backwards, to the world of 1948, to give us some new inspiration for the next twelve months. International Organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International continue to hold power to account, and protecting human rights defenders who are often risking their lives or their liberty to fight for justice. Efforts of Amnesty and other such organisations are – slowly – leading to greater efforts made to ensure the freedom of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe; this weekend, Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary (in spite of his previous blunders), is flying to Tehran to attempt to secure her release.

Indeed, student groups worldwide are an excellent channel through which human rights discourse can be spread among a wider audience. Consider the actions of UCL Amnesty over the past few months, for example. We have, among other things, been to the Russian embassy to demonstrate for LGBT rights in Chechnya, and to the Turkish embassy to petition for the release of the “Istanbul 10”, ten Turkish Amnesty activists who had been unfairly imprisoned, and held letter-writing sessions as part of Amnesty International’s annual Write for Rights campaign (see picture). Efforts of Amnesty activists worldwide ultimately led to their release from prison, however, Amnesty Turkey’s Chair Taner Kılıç was denied his freedom and remains behind bars awaiting trial.

It is only with persistent efforts, that meaningful change can be achieved. Only once any meaningful change is achieved will human rights be regarded as worthy of interest again, 69 years after the original ‘spark’.

Often it is times of crisis that bring communities together against common enemies. Consider the near-universal scorn (including from senior figures of Islam, Christianity and Judaism) towards Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. Likewise, the fight against issues such as modern slavery in the United Kingdom has, over recent years, attracted notable supporters as diverse as the Home Office, the London Evening Standard, the Guardian, and recently recently received senior backing from the Chief Rabbi. Issues such as this attract criticism from all corners of politics, religion and the fourth estate.

Over the next twelve months, efforts of the millions of activists and human rights defenders worldwide will hopefully continue to dismantle the perception that human rights are a mere luxury, something to put behind issues such as national sovereignty and economic expansion Where countries and enough individuals speak out, policies can be changed and people can be free.

However dark the future may seem, there will always be a little light of hope; there will always be someone holding a candle in the darkness. For as long as we channel the 1948 ideals of universality and the priority of human rights over all else, the future may get just a little bit brighter, and a few more lives may be made just a little bit better.

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