Monday, December 15, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Little to Celebrate on 60th Anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Russian Activists Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 15 – Last week, Russia’s rapidly dwindling human rights community assembled on the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which they have placed so much hope. But this year, several of its leaders suggested that there were few reasons to celebrate.
In a speech to the Moscow meeting at the Sakharov Center, Memorial’s Oleg Orlov said that he “did not want to celebrate” this anniversary because the hopes of a decade or so ago had been dashed not only in the Russian Federation but in the United States and other countries as well (
“Even ten years ago, we would have said that despite retreats in one or another places from the principles contained in the Universal Declaration,” he said, “humanity was moving along the correct path, and these principles were winning, [with] history showing their final and irreversible victory.”
Now, however, Orlov continued, there has been a retreat “not only in Russia” where jury trials have just been eliminated in cases involving “crimes against the state” but also “in the United States which always proclaimed its attachment to the principles of human rights” but whose current leaders have “in practice justified torture.”
Orlov suggested that given this trend, those concerned with human rights should be asking themselves why “such a large part of our fellow citizens” view the rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration as “unnecessary” and thus are not prepared to do anything when these rights are violated by the state.
Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said that in Russia at least, the current problems reflected the difficult transition from a situation in which the individual exists for the state rather than the state for the individual. But that has made the Universal Declaration even more important than otherwise, she insisted.
“Few people in the USSR knew about the existence of this document,” the longtime Soviet dissident said, because “the leadership of the country hid it from us.” But once people learned about it, they were energized and that energy contributed to the transformations that have taken place.
Despite all its imperfections, she continued, the 1993 Russian Constitution enshrined the principles of the Universal Declaration as the foundation of the new Russian state. “Alas,” she said, “in real life, these postulates of the constitution are violated constantly, in large measure and very crudely.”
But the principles are there, Alekseyeva continued, expressing confidence that they would do so everywhere. If the current US administration has violated these principles, the American people have voted for Barak Obama who is committed to following them. That should give Russians hope because “now we are not as separated from the rest of the world.”
Russian human rights activist Sergey Kovalev, however, suggested that there was a problem on this anniversary which it would be wrong to deny: Many people and governments invoke the principles of the Declaration for show but are not interested in realizing them in the lives of their countries.
Consequently, the 60th anniversary of this document is an occasion for concern, he said. A half century ago, many believed that humanity had to change course because of the horrors it had seen. But it did not change course as much as change the way in which its governments described what they choose to do.
At the start of World War II, Kovalev pointed out, the countries allied against Nazism committed themselves to “the defense of freedom, humanity, and law,” but by the time of the Nurnberg trials, it became tragically obvious that the world was willing to allow “one cannibal to judge another cannibal for cannibalism.”
The human rights campaigner said that he was “convinced that we are experiencing a global moral political crisis. At the center of contemporary political arrangements of the world as before are ambitions and so-called geopolitical interests,” however nicely these are covered up with phrases from the Universal Declaration.
Other speakers at the meeting called for human rights activists to redouble their efforts to fight the current tide. Lev Ponomaryev, the head of the For Human Rights Movement, for example, said that those concerned about human rights need to keep fighting to prevent restrictions on trial by jury and other basic rights.
But Aleksandr Cherkasov, another leader of Memorial, spoke for the majority on what is for many a discouraging anniversary. Why, he asked, are human rights campaigners so few? How can they become more than a “self-proclaimed conscience of the nation?” And in conclusion, he provided a chilling explanation:
Russian society today “is situated between the powers-that-be and terror,” and in that context, “it does not want to listen to human rights activists,” something those in power who constantly invoke the threat of terrorism know very well and are increasingly skilled at using to build up their own power and to limit the rights of their citizens.

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