Matters of Life and Death

by Daya Thussu

Toward Freedom magazine, November 1998


Many strides have been made since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Promoting and protecting human rights has become a key theme in contemporary international relations. The mass media are more aware of the rights of women, minorities, and cultures. Within the UN itself, a High Commissioner for Human Rights monitors abuses globally.

And yet, as the UN celebrates the golden jubilee of the declaration, one of the most basic human rights-the right to live with dignity-is denied to the vast majority of humans.

Debate rages about how human rights should be defined. One of the most fundamental rights, for example, should be the right to food. Yet, one out of every five people goes hungry every day, says the UN, and over 20 million people die annually from starvation and related illnesses.

Critics of the Western definition-individual political freedom-argue that for more than a billion people the right to life is the real issue. Without food, "freedom" means little. But the suffering and death caused by lack of food and water don't appear to be very high up on the West's human rights agenda.

Southern countries also allege that the West has emphasized individual civil rights at the expense of the right to development, which formed Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1986, the UN General Assembly adopted a declaration on the right "to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development." Five years later, it resolved that "extreme poverty is a violation of human dignity, a threat to the right to life and a condition that prevents the most vulnerable groups from exercising their human rights."

Developing countries argue that the inequitable global economic system violates these rights. Their debt burden is more than $1.3 trillion; many southern countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, pay more on debt servicing than health and education-at a time when African economies are experiencing an alarming decline.

Those affected most are also the most vulnerable: women and children, the rural poor, and indigenous peoples. The latter are doubly hit, often denied civil rights in their own countries. According to the UN, half a million women in the developing world die annually due to pregnancy-related problems. From Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone, thousands of children are killed in armed conflict. Every day, 35,000 children die of malnutrition and vaccine-preventable diseases, says UNICEF.

Southern elites are also suspicious of Western human rights organizations' support of secessionist movements that use terrorist violence, such as the 1980s Khalistan movement in the Punjab in northern India. Only in 1991 did the London-based Amnesty International, the world's largest human rights organization, begin denouncing human rights violations by militant groups.

Human rights has always been a controversial issue. During the Cold War, it was used by the West to score political points against communism. As a result, many anti-communist dictators with brutal records were kept in power.

The killing of 45,000 civilians in early 1980s by El Salvador's right-wing death squads, trained and armed by the US, didn't generate much interest in the West. Hollywood makes films about persecution of Buddhists in Tibet, but genocide in Rwanda -nearly one million dead out of a population of seven million-barely gets mentioned.

Nevertheless, the issue is often used to score political points. For example, critics point to an Amnesty report on Iraqi "atrocities" in autumn 1990 as an instance in which abuse allegations were used to set the stage for war. That report included a widely-quoted story about babies being taken from incubators and killed by Iraqi soldiers in occupied Kuwait. Amnesty later admitted that the story had no basis in fact. The report was issued just weeks before a crucial UN vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq.

Since the end of the Gulf War, most Western human rights organizations have failed to highlight the suffering of Iraqi children under UN sanctions, which continues without legal or moral justification. According to researchers, over a million children have died in Iraq in the past six years, victims of disease and malnutrition.

"The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government," says Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite moves towards multiparty l democracy in much of the South, however, I power still remains in the hands of an unrepresentative and often corrupt elite.

Even these elites find their power limited. I While human rights and democracy gain new converts, more crucial decisions are being made at a supra-state level by international institutions. Under their Structural Adjustment Program, public spending in many developing countries has been cut. Social welfare programs that once promoted basic human rights to food, health, and education are being dismantled. All this undermines the fragile structure of democratic rights in the developing world.

Despite UN covenants, human rights violations continue. And there's little reason to believe that pious pronouncements marking the 50th anniversary of the UN declaration will make much difference. No tangible change can take place until the scope of human rights is widened to include the right to life itself.


Daya Thussu teaches at Britain's Coventry University. He is editor of Electronic Empires-Global Media and Local Resistance.


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