While governments and groups around the world made effusive statements and gave awards to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, the Asian Human Rights Commission struck a more somber note.
“The celebration,” the regional body said, “is a grim reminder that even after 60 years of the adoption of this great declaration, the gap between what is declared and what is actually achieved … is enormous. Both in the field of civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights, people in Asia … have so little to celebrate.”
The downbeat mood was certainly shared in Burma. There, a handful of people belonging to local group Human Rights Defenders and Promoters gathered in Rangoon to mark the date.
Their International Human Rights Day event was muted by comparison to most around the world, and even compared to the one that they had held the year before. But that they got together at all demonstrated their commitment to what the day represents.
Government-backed thugs and officials harassed and questioned the participants as they arrived for the program on Tuesday. The following morning, police and other authorities visited and threatened the organizers.
“They seemed quite angry,” one told Radio Free Asia. “‘Every year you lot upset the public like this,’ they said.”
For upsetting the public with talk about human rights, dozens of the group’s members are already languishing in jail. They include its leader, who has been accused of plotting bomb attacks after he spoke out on the need for more emergency relief in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which hit the country in May. Others have been imprisoned on offences ranging from sedition to illegal tutoring. Many were arbitrarily detained and charged after last year’s protests.
Police have lodged the name of an associate living abroad with Interpol, which has obligingly posted a wanted notice for him on its Web site. His alleged offences include people smuggling and terrorism.
The gap between what has been declared and what has been achieved could hardly be wider than in Burma today, a fact that Human Rights Defenders and Promoters also plainly acknowledge.
“In stark contrast to the aims and pledges contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our country, Burma,” its statement read, “is utterly violating human rights in the gravest manner.”
One person who had come from cyclone-ravaged areas to attend the gathering put it more bluntly: “Across the whole country, you’ll see human rights abuses whenever you step outside your house.”
After a tumultuous year in which global interest in Burma was not matched with efforts to support domestic efforts for real change, the group’s statement also contained a sense of despair at the ineffectual work of international agencies.
“Contrary to their aims and objectives, the U.N. and the Human Rights Council as well have failed to successfully prevent human rights abuses,” it said pointedly.
Nothing in this year’s speeches of either the U.N. secretary-general or the high commissioner for human rights will give the rights defenders in Burma, or elsewhere in Asia, cause for optimism.
In her address, High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay blandly iterated, “Tens of millions of people around the world are still unaware that they have rights that they can demand.” She said that she warmly welcomed the designation of 2009 as the International Year of Human Rights Learning, to make up for this presumed deficit in knowledge.
For millions in Burma and Asia, the declared year will consist of nothing more than lost time and wasted opportunities. As Human Rights Defenders and Promoters make clear, their problem is not a lack of knowledge. They understand the issues better than the high commissioner. Their problem is a lack of means to implement and enforce their rights.
Nobody needs to be told about rights that they can’t obtain. What people need are practical ways to protect those rights, and to obtain redress where they are wronged. Learning about human rights is only useful if accompanied with well-informed steps toward those ends.
The United Nations should instead do some learning itself. It should spend time learning about how rights are systemically denied in countries across Asia, including Burma, and about what can be done to intervene actively to make it otherwise. This is a much harder task than the one it has set itself for 2009, but it’s the only one really worth doing.
“Unfortunately, in the countries of the region the ordinary folk react to human rights discourse without much enthusiasm,” the Asian Human Rights Commission said in its closing remarks on Wednesday, “due to their realization that the systems of oppression that exist, which are defective administration of justice systems, will not allow them to enjoy these rights.”
That’s the nub of Burma’s problems. The Human Rights Defenders and Promoters know it. Anyone who steps outside their door there knows it. The U.N. technocrats probably know it too, even if they won’t admit it. Enough of learning; without implementing, there will only be many more unhappy Human Rights Days to observe in Rangoon.