Amnesty International is one of the most prominent human rights organizations documenting abuses worldwide. So it is significant when it takes a moment off from the fight and looks, instead, at the larger ideals involved in the struggle.
Those ideals are the rights of all human beings to hold opinions and to express them without fear of arbitrary arrest and persecution by their governments.
And, as Amnesty International uses its 2008 annual survey of human rights conditions to remind the world, these ideals are nothing new. In fact, they are part of an international agreement that all the nations of the world formally subscribe to and which is now 60 years old.
The framework is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. At the time of its adoption, world leaders enthusiastically welcomed what is, in fact, a point-by-point listing of the basic rights of every human being.
'Magna Carta' For All
“This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere,” Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, said at the time of the declaration's adoption.
But Amnesty International says many authoritarian regimes today remain far from accepting any kind of Magna Carta concept. The Magna Carta was a famous agreement in 13th-century England that forced the king to recognize that he, too, must obey the laws.
Instead, Amnesty notes in its current report, people are still being imprisoned by regimes that routinely ignore both their own laws and their international commitments as they repress free speech and political activity. And in 2007 -- the year covered in the report -- there was plenty of evidence of that -- from Russia to Central Asia to Iran.
“This is the 60th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," says Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan. "It is about time that governments apologized for six decades of human rights failures, and it’s about time that they committed themselves afresh to living up to the promises that they made in 1948.”
She also says that events in 2007 showed that the people who live under repressive regimes know their rights and demand them. It is their governments which do not listen -- to their own shame.
“If I look back at 2007," Khan says, "what I remember most are the saffron-robed monks in Myanmar. What I remember most are the black-suited lawyers in Pakistan demanding justice, demanding equality, demanding the rule of law, demanding human rights. It was people on the streets that put governments to shame in 2007.”
Signers, But Still Abusers
Khan’s cry of anger against the status quo mirrors the frustration that many human rights campaigners feel as decades go by and the very governments that signed the Declaration of Human Rights continue to abuse it.
The frustration is voiced clearly when political dissidents and rights activists from different countries meet to discuss how to force governments to change. The head of one Western-based organization working in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union says it is not possible for civic groups alone to reform repressive regimes.
"I do think we overstate the civic society case," Bruce Jackson, president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, told the Democracy and Security Conferencea in Prague last year. "Civic society confirms democracy and might be a condition of democracy, but it does not cause democracy. There are more NGOs in Belarus today than there are in Georgia, and in fact if NGOs alone can cause democracy, then Alyaksandr Milinkevich would be president of a free Belarus."
He and many other rights activists would like to see Western governments use their economic weight to force abusive regimes to change as the price for better trade relations. Western states routinely isolate smaller, repressive regimes that like that of Sudan or Myanmar but -- rights activists argue -- go slow when it comes to major trading partners like Russia and China.
'Top Of The Agenda'
“This duality has existed practically all the time. It never stopped," former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky said at the same Prague conference. "The question is about the proportion -- whether the main emphasis in your relations with [repressive] countries is made on demanding that they improve their human rights record and release dissidents or whether that is the last point in all your relations. And the first point is, of course, how to have more profits. And that's what our struggle is about, how to make the question of human rights and the fate of dissidents the top of the agenda in international relations.”
That is essentially the message of Amnesty International this year as it calls on all governments -- both repressive and enlightened -- to renew their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As the declaration says, all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. No one shall be subjected to torture. All are equal before the law.
Now, 60 years after these truths were universally adopted, Amnesty says, it is more than time they were universally observed.