Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

We don't do universal rights, We're America

For one of the classes I currently have, we read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (go read it). This is a foundational document for human rights practitioners and advocates as it forms, in part, what is known as the International Bill of Rights.

Here are some excerpts:

Article 18 - Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Article 19 - Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Article 22 - Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
Article 24 - Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
Article 28 - Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
Article 29 - (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

My professor asked us after having read the declaration, "What was your impression of the declaration when you read it? How did you feel when you read it?"

One of my classmates from the Middle East/North Africa raised her hand and asked if we were to respond based on the most recent time we had read it, or the first time we had read it.  The professor said we could respond however we wanted, and another classmate from South America proceeded to recount her feelings the first time she read the declaration during elementary school.  The clarity of her answer started to fade as I got hung up on the fact that she had read the declaration in elementary school.

The first time that I had read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in completion was for this every class, in graduate school. I am 26 years old, educated in the United States with a BA degree in the humanities, and now pursuing an MA degree in peace studies, and I finally got around to reading the declaration.

I'll take the blame for some of this. I was doing human rights work in the West Bank and rarely sat down and read human rights law or international conventions, something, in retrospect, I should have done.

But I think the issue is larger than a personal issue. Several students in the class, from outside the US, talked about reading the declaration in a public elementary school.  As opposed to teaching international law and international human rights conventions, we, in the United States, have a degree of contempt for international law and human rights law.

Or maybe the contempt is at the governmental level, most clearly exemplified by George W. Bush and his cronies, while the public is simply unaware of international law and international human rights. We learn the Bill of Rights, found in the US Constitution, but we know damn well that only applies to people in the United States, and frankly, it may only apply to US Citizens, unless you're Muslim and/or brown, or your last name is Awlaki.

We've even created prisons outside of the United States so that we don't have to extend domestic law to those people, knowing full well that we will not extend international human rights standards to those we've locked up in these clandestine prisons.

What if we read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 5th grade classrooms and talked about how these rights should be granted to and protected for all people, regardless of where they reside of where they were born. Sure, that would somewhat undermine the "supremacy" of the United States and the elitist, not to mention fictional, notion that the US has the market cornered on values. But we'd be conveying a message that all people are equal, even across national boundaries, that there's a set of moral standards and baseline behavior, codified in international law, that we're obligated to respect. Now wouldn't that be a dangerous message for the empire of all modern empires. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Kroc Institute's 25th Bday

The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Here is a timeline -- with text, photos, and videos -- of the history of the program. Check it out.