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International Human Rights Day!

This Magazine Staff

Today is the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights. On December 10th, 1948, 48 states voted in its favour. Although not one state voted against it, eight abstained: including the former Soviet Union, taking issue with the inclusion of individual property rights; apartheid-era South Africa, saying that “human dignity would be impaired if a person were told he could not reside in a particular area”; and Saudi Arabia, saying that the Declaration was too Western-centric and did not reflect the values of everybody.
The history of human rights, as we all no doubt are aware, has been rocky. There have been countless abuses, unjust imprisonments, unresolved disagreements over how human rights should be understood, and whether legal prosecutions should be the fate of its violaters. For instance, today’s Globe and Mail featured an opinion piece by Erna Paris in which she praises the International Criminal Court’s first trial next month. In place to prosecute war criminals, the ICC has an obvious appeal. Nevertheless, there has been some understandable criticism of this prosecutorial body. Namely that it doesn’t reflect the varying ways in which people around the world settle their disputes. Prosecutions are, in more places than we might expect, unpracticed – while reconciliation is the norm.
People also differ over the weight they should give to the different kinds of rights. The Declaration is composed of civil and political rights; as well as economic, social and cultural rights. The former consists of things like the right to a fair trial, the right to free movement, religion, conscience, and the like. The latter is made up of rights to food, clothing, medical care, education, clean water, etc. Now, it appears the fault lines of disagreement lie between the developed and the developing world. The former emphasize civil and political rights, while the latter (a majority, in this economically disproportioned world) emphasize economic, social, and cultural rights, or what some call “freedom from want.”
In light of the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe, where more than 500 people have died since August because of a poor sanitation system and a contaminated water supply, I think we in the West must come around to the developing world’s emphasis on freedom from want. To make human rights exclusively synonymous with political freedoms would be to condemn many people to certain death.
Update: The cholera numbers are now 775 deaths, with 16,141 cases.

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