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Observing Human Rights Day amidst leaders' 'penchant' for demagoguery, autocracy

By Moin Qazi*

What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence?... Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. – Abraham Lincoln
The ideal of universal human rights has been among the most important political legacies of this century. It offers a promise of ending many of the injustices that bedevil human society. Human rights refer to a wide continuum of values or capabilities that enhance human agency or protect all people everywhere from severe social, political and legal abuses. They symbolise humanity’s highest aspirations.
The tragedy is that this powerful idea has lost its sheen and the human efforts needed to guard and nurture it have weakened in the face of continuous assaults on human rights by the predators of civilisation. The ideals of human rights are far more fragile than we believe. In more and more countries, leaders are showing a penchant for demagoguery and autocracy. 
These once pure ideals are now much harder to separate from the impure world of murky politics, civil rights abuses and unfulfilled hopes. A large number of citizens now believe that the lofty idea of fair justice and human rights rings hollow – that justice is reserved for the powerful, and the elite.
The fact remains that the supposed liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same , which has been a shibboleth for several human right lovers, has been reduced to a mere romantic ideal .
The idea of human rights was kindled by courageous campaigners who passed on the flame to succeeding generations. These rights were first formally enshrined in 1948 when the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that boldly proclaimed that recognition of ''the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.'' Human rights became embedded slowly but steadily in human consciousness and began to symbolise legal morality.
The movement that culminated in the historic charter grew out of the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s vicious and tyrannical regime that darkened the rest of the 20th century. But its roots can be traced to the Greek Stoics, who believed in universal natural laws; the Romans, who refined concepts on the rule of law; and the Enlightenment philosophers, who believed that freedom was a natural condition. 
In this millennium, documents like Magna Carta of 1215, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, and the American Constitution of 1787 and the Bill of Rights of 1791 advanced the universality of human rights.
Clause 39 of Magna Carta is the fountain from which springs forth the pure transparent stream of human rights.: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land." The courts across the world continue to look to Magna Carta for inspiration and guidance in identifying those rights that are fundamental to the idea of freedom in human society. 
Large number of citizens believe, lofty idea of fair justice and human rights rings hollow – that justice is reserved for the powerful and elite
In the universe of justice, it is a widely held view that law is an expression of eternal truth. The notion that legal principles were the product of historical development, which itself was beyond the control of the people who lived it, was, in a word, teleological. The principles were sometimes equated with the will of God; sometimes they were the product of a secular but nevertheless inescapable evolution. Thus human rights are the product of convergence of several social movements; they are an ocean in which several rivers have merged.
Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn
It is owing to the sacrifices of our ancestors that we enjoy several immutable human rights and precious freedoms. These rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law. We can understand the preciousness of these rights when history reminds us that there was a world that was profoundly different from the one we now live in, one in which people had far fewer rights and far less voice.
It was around the time of the Human Rights declaration that the great writer George Orwell wrote his 1946 essay, “The Prevention of Literature.”Orwell’s concern then was not just with Russian totalitarianism, but with the arguments used by much of the Western intelligentsia to justify repression. “What is sinister,” he argued, “is that the conscious enemies of liberty are those to whom liberty ought to mean most.”
He was addressing Western scientists who admired the Soviet Union for its technical prowess and were utterly indifferent to Stalin’s persecution of writers and artists. “They do not see that any attack on intellectual liberty, and on the concept of objective truth, threatens in the long run every department of thought.” Several dissidents like Andrei D. Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Eastern bloc heroes of another age first made “international human rights” a rallying cry for activists across the world. 
We need to build coalitions with friends and partners across movements -- human rights activists, lawyers, trade unions, social movements, economists and faith leaders and ensure that the voices of those who need to be heard most are amplified and they are rid of the fetters that shackle them. It is only through this solidarity that we can realise a world without inequality and injustice- a world for which many of our great ancestors have made extraordinary sacrifices. Till we achieve this, our struggles remain a part of the work in progress.
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*Development expert

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