Rights of Humans

She has been called the world’s most famous political prisoner.  With her small stature, calm demeanor, and unflinching calls for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi has become a symbol of international human rights.  She has led the opposition movement in Burma (officially known as Myanmar) since she returned to the country in 1988.  The military junta that took over that year called elections in 1990 then refused to hand over power when voters chose Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

She has been confined to her house for much of the time that has passed since the elections, despite enormous pressure from the international community and her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Like Vaclav Havel and the Civic Forum of Czechoslovakia or Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress of South Africa, Aung San Suu Kyi stands not alone but alongside a large movement.  She and the NLD have worked for nearly two decades to achieve a new government that doesn’t systematically violate human rights. Many countries maintain sanctions against the Burmese government for these human rights abuses, which include extrajudicial killings, forced labor, child soldiers in the army, and sexual violence against ethnic women.  But the military dictatorship can still count on political and financial support from countries such as China and Thailand.  Numerous transnational corporations, including South Korea’s Daewoo, Japan’s Nippon Oil, and U.S. Unocal, have invested in Burma’s rich natural resources, in some cases with the financial backing of a banking conglomerate that includes Citibank and HSBC.

Although the Burmese government recently released from prison 300 of an estimated 1,200 political prisoners, it has ignored calls for more systemic change.  In October 2004 the ruling party ousted reformist general Khin Nyunt who had been willing to sit down with Suu Kyi and the NLD.  This stalemate between the power of guns and money on one hand and the power of principle and grassroots organizing on the other has resisted the mediating attempts of the United Nations, ASEAN, and other parties.  Aung San Suu Kyi, now into her seventh decade, stays true to her words from 1990:  “Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.”

The phrase “human rights” is relatively new, though the concept has deep historical roots. In 1948, in the aftermath of World War II and the experience of the Holocaust, world leaders drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that asserts “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”  Although a hard-fought consensus was reached on the 30 articles in the declaration, considerable disagreement persisted over whether human rights applied only to political and civil questions (free and fair elections, freedom of speech) or economic and social matters as well (right to food, health, work).  At the same time, many countries resisted the notion that international authorities could interfere in their domestic affairs using human rights as the rationale.

This battle between human rights and sovereignty intensified in the 1970s, even as a series of human rights accords – on self-determination, on prevention of discrimination, on employment, on the rights of children and women, and so on – gradually created a framework of human rights law. The Helsinki Accords of 1975, signed by 35 European and North American countries, established an important inter-governmental framework for adjudicating human rights disputes that crossed the deep ideological divide of the Cold War.  Helsinki groups sprang up in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to hold their governments accountable to the standards laid out in the 1975 accords.  Similar groups emerged in the post-colonial environment in Africa and Asia.  Although the human rights advocacy community was really born in 1961 with the establishment of Amnesty International, the movement became a global force with the proliferation of these civil society movements of the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, countries such as North Korea and Burma and Pakistan still resist outside demands that they respect international human rights standards and norms.  Meanwhile,  governments that are most active in pointing fingers, such as the United States, refuse to acknowledge that they too violate human rights either systematically (through the criminal justice system, for instance) or on case-by-case bases (such as the “renditions” whereby the United States kidnaps terrorism suspects and sends them to third countries for torture).  Although it has helped to create many of the treaties and insitutions of international law, the United States still refuses to accept the rulings of international bodies if they conflict with U.S. law.

Is the human rights discourse truly universal or does it reflect certain Western or Westernized cultural beliefs? Are the human rights professionals the missionaries of the modern world, carrying their belief systems to far-of lands?  Why have U.S. representatives been so involved in crafting important human rights documents and treaties but the U.S. government so resistant to signing the final agreements (such as the treaty to establish the International Criminal Court)?  Which has been more effective: governmental pressure on human-rights-abusing countries or the efforts of civic human rights organizations?  Do states still have the right to conduct internal affairs free of outside interference or does a “responsibility to protect” trump traditional notions of sovereignty?  Do corporations deserve to have rights?

On a trip to Provisions, you can read Whitney Stuart’s biography of the Burmese human rights leader Aung San Suu Kyi, leaf through the magazine Combat Law to find out about cutting edge human rights advocacy in India, go online to read the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, scrutinize Barbara Kruger’s provocative word art, listen to the impassioned rhythms and lyrics of Nigeria singer Fela Kuti, and watch the struggles of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in the film Before Night Falls.

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