When I heard Amnesty International was interested in receiving blogs on human rights, I started thinking…
Human rights are something you might not consciously think about in Australia. Here, we tend to take them for granted until something happens to jolt us from our complacency: Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai shot for going to school; members of Russian band Pussy Riot arrested over song lyrics – words that somehow threatened a government; Greenpeace protesters thrown into prison on spurious charges. Just last week activists were attacked in Sri Lanka for defending a basic human right. And Syria… where to start?
In this country:
- We have a Human Rights Commission which oversees our rights to ensure citizens are afforded dignity, respect and a basic standard of living. Laws protect individuals from breeches of human rights such as racial vilification, homophobia, harassment and violence.
- We can vote. Every three years we have the chance to ‘boot out’ the government if we don’t like it.
- We have freedom of speech. Essentially, we can step out the front door and yell our opinions into the air without fear of arrest, torture or imprisonment. (But if we’re too vocal in the middle of the night, we’ll be fined for noise pollution).
- We have a health system which provides free medical care for anyone who is ill or injured. It isn’t perfect but basically, if you’re sick, you receive help (without having to sell your house).
- We have an education system – free schooling to every single Australian child. There are flaws – inequities exist and some children struggle to achieve the same educational outcomes as others, but comprehensive schools with quality teachers are open to all. From the age of five, every Australian child goes to school.
- The average mean income of Australians is high and while there are people in our society who are disadvantaged – many our own indigenous people – as a nation we constantly strive to redress this injustice…to implement human rights.
Human rights aren’t new, they’ve been around in some form for thousands of years. Since humans began crawling out of ponds, living in groups and thinking for themselves, human rights have mattered. In ancient Greece, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle talked about natural justice. There were lots of discussions during the Enlightenment. Hobbes developed the idea that human beings were in a ‘state of nature’ requiring a union between individuals and a sovereign, while Locke mooted the idea of ‘life, liberty and property’. Philosophers across Europe and the East – Rousseau, Descartes, Kant amongst others – wrote treatises which one way or another gave value to the idea of human rights. Mary Wollstonecraft, in her ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ (1792) emphasised the importance of human rights, specifically woman’s rights.
Despite this valuing of human rights, various tyrants have tried to destroy these rights – Hitler, Stalin, Moa Tse-tung, Pol Pot and Idi Amin to name a few. After human suffering on a monumental scale, these dictators were stopped and human rights resurrected…but not everywhere.
What we in Australia take as a basic birth right doesn’t happen automatically, universally. Breeches of human rights occur daily all over the world. Minorities are persecuted based on racial and religious grounds; homosexuals are beaten and killed just for being themselves; women and children are maimed and murdered for trying to receive an education.
Not every society values human rights. It’s up to those who possess this simple justice to speak out. To act. Human rights – precious to some, elusive to many.
Image source: http://www.bhamcropwalk.org/