Human Rights Day Is December 10
Human Rights Day, December 10th, is an opportunity to reflect on the gains and losses of the human rights movement. The first decade of human rights in this new century has been a serious setback to the progress that was made up until then. Peter Benenson, founder of Amnesty International, was instrumental in creating the momentum that the human rights movement saw in the later part of the 20th century. He died on February 25th, 2005 at the age of 83. Citizens should use his life as an example of the gains of human rights so that we can reclaim the roots of the movement. During this time of fear and uncertainty we must revive his model of action and accountability, a model that helped cultivate one of the biggest developments that the human rights movement has ever seen: the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Peter Benenson lived his life by the principles of the declaration; the rest of us at Amnesty International just followed the wisdom of the piper.
Take a moment to remember the last few years of the previous century: the military dictatorships of Latin American are for the most part gone; the communism of the USSR dissolved rather than exploded; majority governments occurred in all of southern Africa; Central America ceased being a killing field for the poor; and human rights was on a march forward. The world governments created the International Criminal Court (ICC) and it looked and felt like the bad folk of governments would be chased and maybe imprisoned for crimes against humanity. Human rights groups were popping up all over the world and progress was being made.
Then, 9/11 occurred and America lost thousands of people. American anger channeled fear instead of courage; Iraq is invaded for unknown reasons still; torture begins in the jails of Iraq by our forces; water boarding, a torture technique, is used often and repeatedly; secret prisons are set up in many countries and we send prisoners to these places to be tortured by others; Guantanamo becomes a prison of infamy and reduces the respect for law to this day; unmanned drones are put into frequent use in targeted killings as weapons with no accountability while official statistics on the number of innocent civilians killed are absent (some studies suggest ten to fifty civilians are killed for every one militant insurgent); the new President enlarges the war in Afghanistan; Bagram prison rivals Guantanamo in another attempt to reduce our level of decency and thus up the hatred of American forces in the region; and all the while, Bin Laden roams the earth freely ten years after his hits on our cities. American efforts to mix security issues with human rights lowered the prestige, interest and support of human rights. Press and media move as the governments move–away from human rights. What happened to the momentum, to the wave that swept human rights through our streets and past our doors? It seems as though the tide has gone out.
Instead of getting depressed and angry and disillusioned, I offer a model to emulate who I got to know over three meetings and one letter. His name was Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International. Most of the world does not know him or about him: he never sought the lime light, the TV shows or the award chase, and he even refused to go to Oslo when Amnesty won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. A simple lawyer in London, Peter refused the knighthood nonsense of the crown. He had time to write a long, warm and personal note to me once I left Amnesty after twelve years, but you could not get him to a fancy dinner. He was a humble man who sought solace in the Catholic shrines of Europe after a car accident. But make no mistake, his idea and action of that idea changed the world. This Human Rights Day is a time to stop and remember how Peter Benenson brought that idea to life.
Peter loved both the Conspiracy of Hope and Human Rights Now tours as well as Sting as he mobilized support for the human rights movement from Chile’s stadium. Before this, human rights was an ideal that people shared; but these concerts helped transform human rights into a movement by using music to attract a whole new generation of people. It brought the awareness and income that was needed to drive the international human rights movement, and Peter Benenson recognized this immediately.
When speaking of those concerts, Peter said that the simple idea of human rights is everyone’s possession and those concerts were perfect expressions of that idea in action. I asked him once about how he accomplished everything that he had. “I did what I could with what I had,” he replied simply. He took up a pen of positive ink when he saw two students in Portugal go to prison for toasting to freedom–Peter would not have it. Even more importantly, he cultivated a wave of support and urged others to do the same. It was time to write, to organize and to embarrass those responsible for obstructing the rights of others.
His first assignment for Amnesty was Haiti. Upon arrival, he was questioned by Haitian officials. He told them about his mission, and was therefore sent back to Miami. On the way out, he saw some of the primitive paintings that Haiti is famous for. So when he got to Miami, he bought paints and went back to Haiti. When questioned again why he had come to the country, he said, “I am a primitive painter.” That was and must be the spirit of the human rights movement: unpredictable, caring, clever and ready to protect people and their rights at all costs.
Peter Benenson created what we see today as the human rights movement. It is embodied by Amnesty as well as all other human rights groups, and defined by the Universal Declaration of Human rights. While Eleanor Roosevelt and John Humphrey coordinated and brought the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into fruition, Peter Benenson put the constituency behind that document. It was an ideal that changed the human rights movement by breaking down the boarders of countries, of people–no longer was human rights something that must be preserved in every country; it was something to be preserved universally regardless of geography. Not only did Peter see the importance of this shift in understanding, he acted to implement that understanding all over the world.
Along with Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, Peter Benenson was among the greatest people of the 20th century, but he stands out from the rest because while the others changed their countries and inspired hope throughout the world, Peter actually changed the world: he got the innocent out of prison, he stopped the persecuted from being tortured, and he did it all beyond the boarders of his homeland. He put Amnesty International in every country because he believed that everyone has a responsibility to protect human rights everywhere. Since then, Amnesty has had a continuing impact on people’s lives worldwide for fifty years. In a century of blood and gore, Peter leapt to the forefront as the leader of the change that was needed. His simple life and person put human rights onto the tables of governments and no one will ever get them off–that is the legacy of this man. Simple, plain, sweet and caring. A man for this season. A man of courage and vision unseen in history’s annals.
The depth of decency in this man was total. Even more important than Amnesty as an organization about to turn fifty was Peter’s idea that we–each and every one of us–all have rights and those rights must be protected by all of us regardless of where we live. To paraphrase Seamus Heaney in honoring Seán MacBride, the other founder of Amnesty International, we all are ambassadors of the world to each other.
I humbly submit to the British to place a statue of Peter Benenson in the Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner where all are free to air their peace. Furthermore, I humbly urge all governments to print the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in all passports in honor of Eleanor Roosevelt and Peter Benenson. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights belongs to the citizens of the world. It’s about time we give it to them.
To my beloved nation, move back into the light!