Evarist Bartolo | Sunday, 14 December 2008

Dignity and justice for all of us

Over a year ago the United Nations’ Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon launched a year-long campaign in which all states of the world were meant to take part in the lead up to the 60th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrated last Wednesday, 10 December, Human Rights Day 2008. The focus of this campaign was to help people everywhere to learn about their human rights. Launching the campaign, Ban Ki-Moon said: “The campaign reminds us that in a world still reeling from the horrors of the Second World War, the Declaration was the first global statement of what we now take for granted – the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings.”
Very few activities were organized in Malta as part of this year-long campaign. This lack of commitment to spread and nurture the culture of human rights in Malta does not mean that human rights are healthy and alive in Malta. In this fair land people are still discriminated against because of their political opinions. Homosexuals are still derided and abused. Women do not enjoy full and equal rights with men. Disabled people are still excluded. Racism is rampant.
Though the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have found their way into our Constitution and laws, they still do not form part of our everyday practices. Even our highly educated young people have a very narrow perception of human rights. Studying Junior College students, Philip Caruana concluded that “in Maltese society when one refers to inclusion, the emphasis is mainly attributed to persons with special needs. When people discuss gender equality and discrimination they are labeled as feminist and radical, as if to put people off the debate.” He also says that our young people do not feel “they should participate in public issues, and they also lack a sound idea of tolerance, especially with the increasing problem of the influx of refugees and illegal immigrants into Malta.”
According to Caruana even our highly educated young people consider themselves as passive onlookers and not active participants in our democratic process and they expect solutions to come from above. While recommending changes in the contents that schools teach about human rights, democracy and active citizenship, Caruana recommends that schools themselves should become democratic in the way they are run so that students and teachers adopt democratic mindsets and behaviour. But the responsibility of nurturing a human rights culture cannot be placed exclusively on schools and the education system, the media, families, the political parties and civil society should also work actively in this area.
Sixty years ago, Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the Human Rights Commission in its first years, asked, "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? 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 neighbourhood 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 concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."
The Declaration recognizes that the "inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world" and is linked to the recognition of fundamental rights towards which every human being aspires, namely the right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to an adequate standard of living; the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution; the right to own property; the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right to education, freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and the right to freedom from torture and degrading treatment, among others. These are inherent rights to be enjoyed by all human beings of the global village – men, women and children, as well as by any group of society, disadvantaged or not – and not "gifts" to be withdrawn, withheld or granted at someone's whim or will.


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