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William Hague: We have a duty to speak out for those who don't have the freedom that we take for granted

William_hague William Hague, Shadow Foreign Secretary, marks International Human Rights Day and the publication of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission's annual report by criticising the UNSC and EU's complacency on Burma and expressing his desire for human rights issues to be at the forefront of British foreign policy in the future.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted on 10th December 1948 articulated the shared belief of 48 countries in establishing a set of universal principles to protect and advance the individual lives of the world’s humanity. It was a declaration of hope which drew its clarity and purpose through first-hand experience of the Second World War, an event where hatred and conflict had snatched human dignity from millions of people. Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the UN Human Rights Commission responsible for drafting the Declaration, and whose efforts were so crucial to its formation, captured this deep conviction when she said:

“This is what we hope human rights may mean to all peoples in the years to come”.

The rights laid out in 1948 were meant to be both enduring and all encompassing and became the inspiration behind a host of reforming initiatives throughout the 20th century, each of which sought to protect the same rights of the individual as the declaration had – economic, social, cultural, equality, political and civil – through changes in policy, law, and constitution.  This was undoubtedly to the benefit of whole generations of people across the world.  And the same unwavering beliefs in these rights can be seen in the forces that broke up apartheid in South Africa, and which ushered in the dawn of new democracies following the collapse of communism.

The explicit nature of the 1948 declaration makes it a useful measure with which we can judge the various systems and practices that occur in areas of our public and private lives.  This imparts a responsibility upon everyone to uphold these basic precepts, to watch carefully and act accordingly when the delicate balance that upholds them in our societies, is threatened.  Freedom, equality and justice can only be successfully achieved when fear and discrimination are defeated.  It is clear much of the human race exists under the shadow of conflict, oppressive regimes, ethnic tension, and poverty, starved of personal freedoms and denied the opportunity to build more open societies. Despite the optimism and anticipation that was felt on that historic day, fifty-nine years ago when the Declaration was adopted, human rights are sadly not a reality for many millions of people across the globe from Belarus to Darfur, North Korea to Zimbabwe, Iran to Cuba and in numerous forgotten corners of the world.

And nowhere is this seen more starkly than in Burma.  Here is a country that, along with the parties that ratified the universal declaration of human rights in 1948, was undoubtedly looking forward to the opportunities that independence would shortly bring.  Peace had broken out following the ending of the Second World War, and the Burmese had a long awaited chance to build their own future.  Instead, the people there have been crushed by a sustained and brutal oppression.  The crisis that unfolded in the country earlier this year captured international attention and the concern of governments, and momentarily shone a spotlight on the situation, but the true story is much longer and just as bloody.  Military rule has been in operation for 45 years since independence, and basic human rights have been disregarded.  Instead the rulers have engaged in a callous exploitation of ethnic differences; stirring up centuries-past tensions.

Vendettas have been pursued by state authorities against innocent people: women have been raped; family members have disappeared or been executed; churches and monasteries have been attacked; children forced into the military; students murdered; and villages destroyed.  Any person identified, however incongruously, as an opponent of the various regimes that have wielded power, risks jail, torture, or death.  The same disregard shown to the minority groups in Burma, who had their own genuine hopes for autonomy, has descended upon the whole population.  The whole notion of human rights is certainly not an abstract one to the Burmese people; they feel the pain of oppression in almost every walk of life.

So what does the significance of the Universal Declaration, and the ongoing plight of innocent people caught in tragic situations, like the Burmese, teach us?  Firstly, the international community must look upon the principles of human rights with the same sense of urgency and conviction as the world did in 1948.  Despite peaceful protests in 1988 which were violently suppressed by the authorities and resulted in up to 3,000 deaths, it was only seventeen years later in 2005 that the first debate on Burma was held by the UN Security Council. Such ambivalence to overt and brutal suppression of human freedoms demonstrated by the Burmese regime, weakens the moral authority of the institution, and undermines the principles which should be the very cornerstone of its work. Furthermore, the European Union, has until recently, consistently failed to apply concerted and credible pressure to the Burmese authorities.  This complacency, at all levels, is the food on which closed and crooked regimes continue to prosper, unchecked.

The responsibility to defend human rights, both at home and abroad, falls upon us all.  As Eleanor Roosevelt rightly pointed out:

“Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world”.

We, in this country, have the advantage of living in freedom, and we must protect that liberty, and use it to speak up for the many millions of people worldwide who have yet to experience the same privilege.  I am pleased that we in the Conservative Party have a Human Rights Commission that is dedicated to this effort.  Its 2007 Annual Report, which is published today on International Human Rights Day, covers the global themes and trends in the field of human rights, including modern day slavery, rape as a weapon of war, the forced recruitment of child soldiers, the plight of refugees and internally displaced people, prisoners of conscience, and the freedom of press and religion, and I very much hope that these issues will be among those at the forefront of British foreign policy over the coming years. For as we enter into the 60th year of the existence of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must remember that the declaration was not in itself conclusive. It was a call for continued action and the duty now rests with our generation to ensure that its principles, set out in the spirit of such hope and optimism, will shine brightly forth in places which sadly remain in darkness and shadow to this day.


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