The Roots of Rights

On December 10th, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Nowadays, when we think of human rights, what exactly do we think?

Do we think that human rights are nothing to do with us?

That human rights are best left to activists?



Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the UN Commission that wrote the UDHR, had a very different vision of human rights –

In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

Butterfly effects for human rights?


The Trouble with Genocide

The trouble with our definition of the crime of genocide is that it doesn’t go far enough. 

Don’t get me wrong, the coining of the term genocide in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, was an important conceptual advance for humanity.

Lemkin combined two root words – genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and the Latin suffix –cide (which means to kill) – thus creating the word genocide as a description of the deliberate and systematic destruction of any ethnic, religious, racial or national group.

It was also an important advance for humanity when, in 1948, the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.

The definition and outlawing of genocide was largely undertaken in the 1940s in the wake of WWII.  It was a hugely important departure and a giant leap of understanding. But now we need to redefine it.  Now we need to come to an understanding of genocide which will help us deal with the needs – and crimes – of our time.

Because the trouble with genocide is that our definition of it is based on the notion of otherness. It is an altruistic notion of otherness.  A tolerant and well-meaning notion of otherness but a notion of otherness all the same.

As a consequence, many atrocities are still taking place in the world because there is international disagreement as to whether or not the crimes constitute genocide.  Very often these situations are recognised as genocide when it is too late to intervene and save the victims.

We need to move towards a situation where we see the entire human race as one genos – one family, one tribe, one race.  Instead of otherness we need to develop our ability to understand and operate a system of oneness.

If we do that, then whenever anyone is targeted for harm as a result of his or her individual belief, race, background or nationality – we will define it as genocide and no longer need to waste time with semantic arguments and bureaucracy.

All crimes against humanity – our family – will concern us.  All injustice.  All suffering.

The nobility of man and his spiritual development will lead him in the future to such a position that no individual could enjoy eating his food or resting at home while knowing that there was one person somewhere in the world without food or shelter. (2)


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(2) ‘Abdu’l Baha – quoted in Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, vol. 3, p. 126

How We Can Live Together…

More than 30 years ago, an Egyptian-born Dominican monk, Bruno Hussar, wanted to create a place where people could learn how to live together – so he founded a new village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel.

This new community was named Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam – Oasis of Peace, and here people of all religions were welcome to come and live and work together. Thirty years later, this is a thriving village with a waiting list of applicants wishing to join the community.

Abdessalam Najjar, an Arab Muslim from the Galilee region of Israel, was one of the first people to move into Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam.  Najjar says of Bruno Hussar’s intentions.

“His interest was to deal with the conflict. Why do we have a conflict? How can we influence the dynamics of the conflict and how can we change it for dynamics for peace building?”

Rabbi Ron Kronish of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, works alongside people of all religious backgrounds in trying to establish peace and unity.  Together they work at building relationships between people because this is what they believe will lay the groundwork for real and sustainable peace.  Rabbi Kronish says,

“We don’t invite people to our dialogues to solve the problem. We invite them to get to know one another, to be in place, to do what you can, to mitigate violence and hatred.”

The people of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam know how hard it is to achieve this deceptively simple goal but many of them believe they can succeed if they approach the work in a specific way.  As Abdessalam Najjar explains,

“I believe, and there are some others believe, that peace education and the peace actions in the absence of the spiritual factor will be not complete, and if we will use the spiritual factor, we will be more able, more courage to do a peaceful action.”

This video – Interfaith Village in Israel – gives a very interesting account of life in Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam.


*Photograph – Waverly Place by James Jowers – 1968.  George Eastman House Collection –
Accession Number: 2007:0275:0038

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Makes you think…

The Universe has as many different centres as there are living beings in it.  Each of us is a Centre of the Universe…

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, p. 3

This means that while I am looking at you thinking that I’m the Centre of the Universe, you are looking at me thinking that you are – and everybody else in the room/world thinks it’s them.

This makes sense of lots of human attitudes when you think about it…