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Ramzy Baroud: Immortalizing ‘Ink on Paper’?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Immortalizing ‘Ink on Paper’?

By Ramzy Baroud

Five years ago, a stimulating commentary, by the United Nations Department of Public Information, celebrated the triumphs and reflected on the challenges still facing the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, decades after its formation. It stated, proudly: “Since 1948, the Universal Declaration has been translated into more than 200 languages.” The striking number of translations must be inspiring to denote, especially if one compares today’s far-reaching awareness of those noble principals, to the detrimental state of human rights affairs on the days of its signing.

The United Nations, still a fresh organization, aspired to lead the world out of the quagmire manifested during World War II, “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” A brighter future awaited the post-war generation, it was hoped, a future enshrined with the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family (as) the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Yet very few point out, that while the declaration may have exemplified the end of a nightmare for some, for others it was, and remains merely “ink on paper,” an overly used expression that is applied mostly by intellectuals of the so-called Third World, while depicting systematically debased international laws and declarations.

Stripped from its political context and from the palpable prospect of being circumvented altogether, the declaration, nonetheless, delineates a future endorsed by the bulk of humanity, but most ardently by those who in fact were not “born free and equal in dignity and rights.” While schools elsewhere might allude to the value of such a declaration, Palestinian school kids, born into military occupation, incarcerated within terribly poor and swarming refugee camps and bounded (even branded) by their identity as Palestinians are likely to commemorate the anniversary of the declaration by roving around the streets of the Occupied Territory, holding hands, carrying flags and laboriously hauling a giant banner strewn a with badly inscribed Article 3 of the declaration: “Every one has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Those kids who roam the streets of Gaza have no first hand experience of what these resounding rights even mean in practice. The recently released report by the Special Rapporrteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on the Right to Food, finally attached figures and numbers to the lamentable reality endured by Palestinians, but reflected most tragically on their children, over 22% of whom (under five-years of age) suffer from either “acute” or “chronic” malnutrition. Most tragically, 9.3% percent suffer from irreversible brain damage, a direct result of starvation espoused by Israeli military policies – collective punishment: closures, curfews, home demolishing and the like.

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude,” screams article 4 in the declaration. Such an article might not have much use for 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli military detention (mostly victims of arbitrary arrests and political prisoners, including 350 under the age of 18) except for being an urgently needed moral validation that they too are an integral part of the “human family”, as it was earnestly epitomized by the declaration. But article 6: “Every one has the right to recognition everywhere before the law,” for them remains a perplexing impasse; most of these prisoners are denied a trial, fair or otherwise, and if law is of relevance, then the ‘Landau Rules’, of the Israeli Supreme Court which sanction ‘certain types’ of torture are implemented.

Nonetheless, no other article within the declaration has rang so close to home, so to speak, like that of article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Illustrations that so amply manifest the opposite of what article 5 stood for are too many to chronicle. The appalling stories I encountered while documenting the Israeli invasion of Jenin last year are reborn every day throughout the Occupied Territory. But if what took place in Jenin was ‘Palestinian propaganda’ as some so unfairly, albeit irrationally concluded, then what to make of the recently published “Checkpoints-Twilight Zone”, written by a former Israeli army Staff Sergeant Liaran Ron Furer?

The Israeli army in Gaza behaves like ‘animals, criminals, and thieves’ admits Furer; a common practice by the Israeli soldiers is to take photos with their unconsciously beaten or wounded Palestinian victims, a stark reminder of the infamous snapshot of smiling Israeli troops locking shoulders behind a dead Palestinian man still soaked with his blood in the West Bank. "I remember how we humiliated a dwarf who came to the checkpoint every day on his wagon. They forced him to have his picture taken on the horse, hit and degraded him for a good half hour."

“The most moral army in the world”, as suggested by an Israeli army general, found it fit to urinate on a Palestinian boy’s head, according to Furer’s book, for daring to smile at one of the soldiers. The seemingly short and neatly compact universal declaration suddenly augmented. “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary attacks upon his honor,” says one article; the uncounted Palestinians forced to strip naked at checkpoints and raided refugee camps throughout the territories might only comfort themselves with their precise knowledge of what such a law entails. Nothing more

No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property,” declares another. Yet under its shadow, millions of Palestinians endure, without home, without land; thousands of them are once again dwelling in white tents, provided by the United Nations. As illegal Jewish settlements so imprudently expand, thousands of Palestinians are ethnically cleansed. Not even an all-encompassing declaration of human rights is of any tangible value then. “Ink on paper,” is once more illuminated.

But is it too foolish of those poor nations to parade with hastily written statements celebrating rights they never attained? I think not. It matters little, in my belief, who drafted what and why. It is the motif and the dream that lives on. What endures is the “recognition of the inherit dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family (as) the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.” What’s worth celebrating for those who acquire none of these values is the liberating hope, the vision and the noble idea ingrained in the declaration’s lasting tenets, even if they only subsist as “ink on paper”.


- Ramzy Baroud is an American-Arab journalist and author. He is the editor-in-chief of Palestine Chronicle and a researcher for the Qatar-based Aljazeera Net English.

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