Tag Archives: Genocide

Defining “Human Rights”

Over the last year I’ve been honing a specialty for my pursuits in the field of journalism, and on several occasions I told people that I wanted my beat to focus on human rights and social justice. But I feel like I’m only just starting to understand what human rights even means.

In my work for a course on “Women’s International Human Rights,” I have to keep a glossary of terms. “Human Rights” stands as the first term on my list, and I realized after a few class meetings that it’s a complex concept with a rich history.

The United Nations are largely responsible for the establishment of codified human rights, and that process began after the genocide of World War II. The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but it still didn’t have any teeth for reinforcement, and its language betrayed some gender bias.

In an intense criticism of the Declaration, Catherine MacKinnon asks, “Are Women Human?” citing the language in Article 1 of the document: “All human beings…should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Men would not feel included if that document suggested all humans treat each other as sisters, suggests MacKinnon.

Furthermore, Article 23 reads, “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity,” yet women today still do not receive equal pay and many struggle to support their own families to a dignified existence.

The establishment of codified human rights did by no means put men and women on equal footing, but it proved to be an important step in universalizing the idea that all humans deserve life, and dignity, and other immutable rights.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights….Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (Articles 1 and 2)

Other rights set out in the initial UN Declaration go beyond the US Bill of Rights and the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of the Declaration of Independence. In addition to the right of a fair trial and freedom from torture, the Universal Declaration states we all share the right to have a family, health, education, cultural life, leisure time, and more.

But the Universal Declaration does not do into depth about how to protect minority or underrepresented groups who experience systemic oppression. So more committees formed in the UN to monitor abuses against these groups and to support them. These groups include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), among others.

All these details about international human rights are new to me. But I’m thrilled to learn about which countries have adopted various UN treaties and how that reflects on state protection of particular human rights. With each new discovery of the fascinating history of human rights documentation, I learn about more human rights violations. And these rights are violated in the United States as much as the next country. In this blog I’ll be sharing my discoveries and criticisms around human rights issues as I delve in deeper this semester and beyond.

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Sensitive Reporting: A Lovely Story Revisits Rwandan Genocide

Last  Thursday NPR’s Morning Edition aired a story that transcends its premise. The feature introduced the youngest person selected to the board of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Although the story stems from Clemantine Wamariya’s appointment, host Rene Montagne probes into Wamariya’s experiences as a refugee fleeing Rwanda.

This story felt especially suited to radio broadcast. Montagne’s questions and Wamariya’s articulate, yet emotionally rich responses convey the intensity of her experience.

To set the tone, Montagne begins, “Clemantine Wamariya knows more about death than a young woman should.” Through the story, Wamariya demonstrates that she has in fact experienced fear and horror foreign to most 23-year-olds.

Together, the interviewer and the interviewee, in just six minutes, explore the genocide and refugee experience. And they touch on the peace that comes from pleasant memories of mango trees.

Wamariya briefly recounts her experience escaping pursuers inRwanda, and then elaborates on what that experience inspired in her. Since she arrived in the U.S. in junior high, she has been exploring intensive questions about human nature and violence.

“I have received an education, but it’s more to learn about others. You know, why we do things to each other as the way we do, such as killing a whole race. What does that really mean? … I’ve been hunting it down, trying to understand psychologically why do humans do such terrible things to each other,” she said.

The emotional climax of the story arrives after Montagne asks, “Is there a particular person who didn’t survive that you think about or that you want especially to be remembered?”

Wamariya waits, then says in her soft, rhythmic voice, “There are too many.” And she pauses again before continuing.

This moment reminded me of the emotional impact possible through radio. The emotion relies on a powerful premise, provocative questions, and thoughtful responses.

This story manages to cover changes to the Holocaust Museum board; revisit conflicts on Rwanda now absent in the news; and tell the remarkable story of a 23-year-old who has experienced horrors of this world. Listeners feel that Wamariya triumphs at the end of this story, because she survived to seek understanding and share her experiences with the museum and with us.

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