“I come no more to make you laugh…” Henry VIII, Act I, Prologue
Every day we read of people throughout the world in great danger, people who are running, walking, crawling, fleeing some oppressor. As they huddle together, the eyes that dart about in search of danger are the same ones that are drained of tears. They are people with the life nearly beaten out of them, people no longer able to laugh or share whatever is left of their existence. They are the ones who clasp onto their children, who are haunted by the ghosts of their parents lying behind in the dust. On the edge of a world they know is fast coming to an end, they sense this end will come suddenly and brutally for some; for others, it will be slower, more torturous.
So it goes in this world where human rights abuses almost sound commonplace. We see the refugee camps on TV where Syrians are crammed into make-shift gathering spots with no paths leading out, all just entry points. The children are expendable, the elderly already lost, dead or dying. We have read of mass graves in Bosnia, ethnically cleansed villages with no echoes from earlier times, women raped and left with bastards to remind them of what’s in store for those born of a different persuasion. We hear of whole tribes hacked to death in Rwanda, their arms held feebly upright in a futile effort at the end to blunt the terrible swift machetes. It’s not that long ago that the Russian Army finally crushed the resistance in Chechnya and ground their boot heel into the necks of the people, leveling the capital of Grozny into a smokey ruin in the dead of winter.
In a class I am currently taking as part of James Madison University’s lifelong learning program, we are examining human rights from a historical, humanistic, and personal perspective, rather than a legalistic one. We have set up our discussions by reviewing the modern concept of human rights during the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions. With the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a backdrop, we have been examining the role of individuals such as Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi to gain freedom for their people.
In the next few weeks, we will examine issues such as human trafficking, child soldiers, economic exploitation of workers in Third World countries, and cross-cultural conflicts over religion and interpretations that end up with whole societies vanished and cultural traditions wiped off the slate, something that we continue to witness in Tibet. In the midst of such outrages, children are lost to any meaningful future and legions of women subjected to the worst of horrors coming from Sharia law, genital mutilation, and unimaginable deaths by stoning, lashing or burning. It’s not a class for the weak of heart.
And lest we think that only foreign despots and warlords have monopolies on such abuses, we are only reminded in the daily news of our own rolling military thunder. We use euphemisms such as “involvement,” “incursion,” “foray, even “invasion” to describe why we continue to be in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and ponder future action against Iran. But those words can never do justice to the sights of body parts torn apart and mangled beyond recognition. Few of our fellow citizens and even fewer of our leaders today have ever donned a uniform, even that of a boy scout, so death and destruction is often thought of as little more than a video game where people go up in a cloud of dust and there is no mess left behind that refuses to be washed away.
The pain of human suffering must be seen up close and personal to grasp the true cost of warfare, the top rung on the ladder of human rights offenses. One would be less than human not be be forever haunted by sights of the “collateral damage” that is a child blown apart, a family screaming and wailing over the loss of their loved ones buried under the rubble, the corpses of enemy combatants with flies on their eyes, the aftermath of soldiers with their legs blown off from improvised explosive devices, the maimed villagers who mistakenly thought their fields had been cleared of mines.
It’s doubtful that any of those innocents lying in the midst of these killing fields and who have been left to rot there had chosen such endings. They usually have been caught up in something they cannot control, something that has victimized them. They have had the misfortune of being born at the wrong place and wrong time and are now paying a terrible price.
Those responsible for such suffering, the demons that call the shots and play out their deadly games, too often are never held accountable and continue to stalk the earth meaning harm. They are the grossest of the human rights offenders, the criminals in our midst who leave people lifeless and sprawled grotesquely in the mud.
In the midst of such daily carnage and mayhem on a world-wide basis, the obvious question is what can we as a people and country do to stop such abuses and bring offenders to a semblance of justice. Of course, some effort through the International Criminal Court has been successful, but at an agonizingly slow pace and too often long after the immediacy of the crimes. We live in a world that demands a patience that often takes the remaining breath from many survivors. For some victims, it is impossible to accept the disconnect between an ideal of how we should treat our fellow man and woman and the crushing reality of cruelty meted out on a daily basis.
Ironically, we see that the pursuit of human rights can sometimes bring more rather than less suffering. As we have witnessed over the past half century, the law of unforeseen consequences always seems to be out there just waiting for the first opportunity to gain jurisprudence.
In the case of Gandhi and Mandela, their noble ambitions for the future of their countries banged head-on with a different reality. With independence from Britain in 1947, bloodshed began in India right away and continued when the two Pakistans divided in the Bangladesh war. As a result, millions of people were caught up in the bloodshed and chaos that resulted. Today the region lives in a tinderbox of perpetual conflict, poverty, and racial/ethnic intolerance.
Visiting today’s South Africa, a little over twenty some years since the release of Mandela from Robben Island and the promise of a new and fruitful beginning for that country, we find a frightening situation of a violently divided country where the regime is run by former “freedom fighters,” many of whom have morphed into thugs and thieves. The country has little to no political plurality, and corruption and venality are the rules for getting ahead. What we see is almost a dystopia far removed from the ideals of social and racial equality espoused by Mandela, who at nearly 95 continues to be a towering moral force.
In our own country, we have the option of voting miscreants out of office, but sadly we often vote other ideologues in who are even more dangerous to this world’s various forms of life. When we lecture others, we should never forget our own shameful past of human exploitation, the genocide of Native Americans, and the slavery of Africans. In being honest with ourselves and the rest of the world, we should never turn a blind eye to the dark side of our own history.
We can take hope, though, in some of our monumental accomplishments, especially in the great struggle of our Civil Rights movement. Those of us who lived through that time witnessed how people can change not just history, but a whole way of life by refusing to be oppressed any longer. As our own “freedom fighters” rose up and refused to tolerate any more human rights abuses on their bodies and souls, our own apartheid way of life that had dominated society just as recently as fifty years ago came crashing down. Much more eloquent to my ears than the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the commanding letter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. In it are his flaming words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It was a proud declaration in American history.
Unfortunately, it’s no secret that there are still ongoing human rights violations of workers in this country, from migrants to the undereducated and powerless who find few options. Sweat shop scenes may be under the radar and not as notorious as those in China and Malaysia, but exploitation can come in a subtler guise. Too often today we hear of employers who force people to labor far beyond a 40-hour norm, at minimum wage and without medical benefits or job stability. Adding insult to injury, so many people are then expected to be grateful in this bad economy to even have the “privilege” of such employment.
And we must never forget that it is not just governments, employers, or individual tyrants who commit human rights violations, either. It is hierarchical institutions, too, who are guilty. They are the ones who behave as though their main purpose is to line their pockets and to hold onto power rather than help others. Such institutions, from predatory banks to churches protecting priests who molest young boys and threaten naive and impoverished couples with eternal damnation if they practice planned parenthood, are even more insidious.
I try to view the issue of human rights in its broadest scope. Although I recognize how incremental and difficult change can be, we must try not to be defeated or overly discouraged by the bleak prospects for lasting and measurable improvements in the plight of others. Such work, though, is never easy.