Common Humanity

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 5

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Roméo Dallaire is a Canadian senator, widely known for being Force Commander of UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission In Rwanda) between 1993 and 1994.  He is also known for his efforts to stop the genocide waged by extremist Hutu Rwandans against their moderate Hutu tribesmen and, more especially against the Tutsis who were the other ethnic group in the Rwandan conflict.

During the genocide, with dwindling troops and no help from outside, most of Roméo Dallaire’s efforts were focused on defending areas where he knew Tutsis were hiding.  In spite of the fact that Dallaire had such limited resources and help, he is credited with directly saving somewhere in the region of 32,000 people of different races.

While Dallaire survived the genocide in Rwanda and many of his associates weren’t as lucky, he makes no secret of his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his experiences and is an outspoken supporter of all efforts to tend to veteran’s mental health.

Now, as well as being a senator, Roméo Dallaire has devoted his life to working for human rights and the prevention of genocide.

Dallaire has written two books – Shake Hands with the Devil – The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2004) and They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children (2010), a book about child soliders.

A Good Start is Half the Work

In the wake of WWII, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted by nine people from around the world. On December 10, 1948, the the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Eight nations abstained from the vote but none actively disagreed.

Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, a member of the drafting sub-Committee, wrote about this occasion:

“I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality.  In the Great Hall…there was an atmosphere of genuine solidarity and brotherhood among men and women from all latitudes, the like of which I have not seen again in any international setting.”

This is the first time in human history that we all officially agreed that all human beings are entitled to basic rights, simply by virtue of being alive.

In Irish there is an expression – “Tus maith, leath na hoibre,”  which translates as, “A good start is half the work.”

It was a good start.

                          Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 1.

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Are Human Rights alright? Part 4

Imagine what might happen if the results of the Human Genome Project really rocked the world.

People would stop each other in the streets.

“Hey, cousin!” they’d exclaim.

“I just found out we’re related! How are you?  Good to meet you! We must get together soon…”

Imagine then, if the realization that we are physiologically part of the same family, prompted us to begin acting like a family?

We’d be a sensible family.  One that knew it had problems but was confident that by working together we’d sort them out.

Problems like the issues surrounding human rights.

Our first step in tackling these problems, might be to make sure everybody feels part of our family. This in itself is a complicated process. We’d already know, from our smaller family units, that true belonging is only possible when both rights and responsibilities are in place.  It’s necessary for everyone in a healthy family to both give and take. This is justice and creates not only basic well-being but dignity and independence.

However, our ‘family’ might pause at this point to examine its conscience, just to make sure that there really is a place for everyone. It’d be in our own interest to do this because, as the African proverb goes,

If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth.

This proverb wasn’t written about the London riots but there’s no denying how well it fits them both literally and metaphorically.

Instinctively we all know that alienation is an extreme of ‘otherness’.  None of us have any loyalty, responsibility or affection for a society – or a family – we feel doesn’t want us. This alienation can sometimes be self-imposed but even so, the ‘family’ needs to be careful that we don’t create structures that perpetuate alienation and disaffection.

OK – so now we have our global family structure. Everyone is welcome and needed – so, what happens next?

Well, obviously, we’re going to ensure that everyone is fed, clothed, housed and safe within our family. Basic life prerequisites.

But this doesn’t mean that some people should do the providing and others should just get to consume the resources – far from it. A good family will always help out in emergencies and will gladly provide for children and anybody vulnerable. But a really good family will also create an environment where everybody can stand on their own feet and live a dignified, productive and independent life.

So, in very simplistic terms, a ‘family’ approach would ensure that everybody had the basics necessary to sustain life and access to the ‘tools’ necessary to allow independence, dignity and the opportunity to contribute to the overall well-being of the family.

How then might our family gathering approach unpleasant issues like the abuse of the ‘rights’ accorded to everyone within our system?

Well, we all know that this behaviour doesn’t have a place in a functional family. Everybody is absolutely expected to respect everybody else and no abuse can be tolerated. We do make mistakes in this regard – even in our smaller families – but overall, guided by the principles of justice – not revenge – our wise family would take whatever steps it needed to take to secure the well-being of the entire family.

And so we might continue, looking at global problems through a lens we understand – the family.

The world is knotted in deep and terrible disorder and no one simple solution is the answer to all of it’s problems. However, sometimes when things are hard to understand and manage it’s helpful to return to first principles.  To things we already know and understand. Like families. We all know about families.

In a family we’d expect love, mutual assistance, support, forbearance and concern with each other’s welfare. This isn’t considered ridiculously idealistic as a goal for a family.

Now that we know that ‘our family’ includes all sorts of people – children who are being sold for sex and slavery, men, women and children struggling and needlessly starving to death, minorities who are persecuted for their ethnicity or beliefs – maybe we won’t only feel concern for them but also responsibility, and a certain entitlement to have a say in their welfare, just as we might with members of our known family?

In the words of Article 28 0f the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

The corollary of that is that all of us also have a responsibility to ensure that this happens.


Photograph – UNICEF – Pakistan, 2010: A boy flies a kite in a camp for people displaced by flooding that began in late July 2010, affecting 18 million people, half of them children.