It is a fitting coincidence that Nelson Mandela’s death should come so close to another seminal event in the cause of justice: the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.
This agreement represented years of work by UN member states. It was codified during the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria. One of the most important outcomes of this conference was the creation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The current High Commissioner is South African activist Navi Pillay. Of this anniversary, Pillay took stock of the lapses that led to the Vienna Declaration: “The Vienna Declaration condemned the gross and systematic violations of human rights that were continuing in many parts of the world. It highlighted violations such as torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, summary and arbitrary executions, disappearances, and arbitrary detentions; it drew attention to all forms of racism, racial discrimination and apartheid, foreign occupation and alien domination, and xenophobia. It highlighted poverty, hunger, religious intolerance, terrorism, and failure to maintain the rule of law.”
Pillay’s enumeration of global injustices perfectly describes the South Africa Mandela faced as a young revolutionary. Unfortunately, many African nations still exist in a chaotic post-colonial storm of strongmen, despots, economic and social tyranny. For every Mandela and Steven Biko, a seemingly endless parade of warlords and dictators — Joseph Kony, Charles Taylor, Idi Amin, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Robert Mugabe and others — push back against decades of progress.
Earlier this year aide workers in the Central African Republic had to face just such a hurdle. According to a report by Reuters, villagers in remote Ouata-Nana ran away in panic when Seleka rebels brandishing machetes and AK47 rifles appeared from the bush — leaving the Red Cross medical workers standing alone in a dusty clearing in Central African Republic.
Rebel Colonel Issene Yaya had come to collect protection money from local chiefs and to lay down the law. He was furious the Red Cross had not recently visited Ouandago, (6 miles) from Ouata-Nana, where the rebels had made their base. After delivering an ultimatum to Ouata-Nana’s mayor for four local chiefs to bring 800,000 CFA francs ($1,600) to them the next day, the rebels disappeared, leaving the village deserted.
“You, Red Cross people … I could make you pay a dear price at the end of my gun barrel for your behavior,” Yaya told the workers.
Of situations such as these, Pillay noted the work yet to be done: “The Vienna Declaration should be viewed as a blueprint for a magnificent construction that is still only half built.”
Her remarks go to a broader point about human rights: Much like our own U.S. Constitution, any declaration of rights has to be a living, responsive and evolving document. Just as humanity is not a stagnant entity, no directive for its safe keeping can be either.
In his forward to the Vienna Declaration anniversary report, U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon perfectly outlined our obligations for the future: “Only when the inherent dignity and equal rights of all members of the human family are truly respected, can we expect freedom, justice and peace in this world.”
Of course these admonishments have domestic — indeed local — attachments as well. As we move into the season of giving, we should all pause to ask what we might do in furtherance of humanity, right here in Pine Bluff. While we do not live under warlords or dictators, many of us still struggle. There is no better occasion of the moment to help them with their plight.