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Putting human rights abuses out of business

Putting human rights abuses out of business:
the audacity of hope and the courage of conviction

Stefanie Rixecker

Given the current global economic crisis, I expect many people would be surprised to hear me say, “I can’t wait to have a closing down sale. I wish I’d be made redundant; no more worries to share; no more favours to ask.” Funnily enough, I really, really do wish that I and 2.2 million other Amnesty International supporters around the world could lose our jobs -- the job of being a human rights defender.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredibly humbling to be part of a movement that’s greater than its individual parts, a movement that began in 1961 when Peter Benenson decided he couldn’t – and wouldn’t – quietly stand by while others were wrongfully imprisoned, tortured or put to death. I’ve been moved by the power of people – to end slavery, disband apartheid and rebuild countless homes and lives after intense, violent conflict. There have been harrowing moments too, though, like when a group of women in Bosnia and Herzegovina recounted their memories of being trapped in soldiers’ encampments only to be humiliated and used as sex slaves. And, there have been moments of intense sorrow such as the time I was wracked with tears as a small boy’s jacket was pulled from a mass grave, a jacket that would have fit my 15 month old son.

Often, though, I have been moved by the power of the person to know what’s just – and to act upon that knowledge. I was moved by the quiet, dogged resolve Terry Hicks showed in supporting his son David Hicks as he battled ‘mighty empires’ to seek David’s release from Guantanamo. I was moved by the monks and people in Myanmar who took to the streets because they know that freedom is within and no regime can restrain that freedom forever. I have been moved by the people of Zimbabwe who in the ongoing face of dispossession, violence and torture fight for a new Zimbabwe, a place that knows peace and full stomachs once again.

It is these people who know the meaning and the power of justice and freedom who continue to honour the intentions behind human rights treaties and conventions. So, while some might think that 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), is just any other year, they know that human rights enshrined in law not only fuel the audacity of hope, but drive the courage of conviction.

The focused, determined conviction that spurred the drafting and international support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was borne from the horrors of World War Two and the atrocities of the Holocaust. These events and their many tragedies drove a generation to say “never again,” so future generations could be free from such evil and know that human rights can be upheld – not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.

And, indeed, it is time once again to drive action on human rights. While much has been achieved in the last 60 years, there is still much to do. In addition to the grave human rights abuses that still occur, we must now muster resolve to consider how 21st century problems, such as environmental degradation and climate change, will also impact upon our human rights and dignity. We need to consider who we are, and who we wish to be in the future.

As a nation in the South Pacific, what will we do if our Pacific neighbours lose their homes and countries due to sea level rise? Will we provide a home for them – as individuals within New Zealand -- or as a people, a nation, within New Zealand? Are we prepared for the impacts of mass migration due to climate change? Do we have strategies for enabling more people on the planet to share fewer resources, perhaps ‘our resources’? Will our 20th century institutions, conventions and legal systems adapt sufficiently quickly in the face of 21st century problems and impacts – such as rapid and abrupt climate change or the ongoing rise of non-state entities such as terror networks?

On one level, the answers are incredibly complex. Yet, on another level, they are ever so simple. For the action that we need now is the same as it was 60 years ago when Eleanor Roosevelt said, “the destiny of human rights is in the hands of all our citizens, in all of our communities.”

So, while I am not about to face the unemployment line as a human rights defender, neither do I have to carry on this business on my own. Indeed, I would be ever so pleased – and truly humbled – if you would ‘job share’ with me, so that the lasting legacy of the UDHR means we can jointly put human rights abuses out of business once and for all.

Stefanie Rixecker is the current elected Chair of the Governance Team of Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand. She is also the Director of the Environment, Society & Design Division at Lincoln University and the Leader for the Global Justice & Environmental Policy theme in the LEaP Research Centre.


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