At the beginning of September 2008, I was fortunate to be able to take part, with José Basaula, Maria Teresa Devoto, Isabelle Lagneau and Cecile Meijer, in the session which takes place every year in New York for NGO’s accredited to the United Nations. As the building in New York is being renovated, the DPI/NGO Conferences will be held for several years outside the US. The headquarters of UNESCO in Paris was a good choice since we celebrate this year the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in Paris in 1948. The theme was: “Reaffirming Human Rights for All: The Universal Declaration at 60”. 1,106 Participants from 65 countries representing 461 different NGOs came “to share knowledge and experience about how best to promote and contribute to the advancement of human rights around the world.” This was done through conferences, panels and many workshops.
- in the space of three days, we were plunged into the whirlwind and the great number of activities, and into the joys and sorrows of the world. We had a general survey of the lack of respect for human rights: discrimination of all kinds, poverty, deprivation…and also of all the efforts being made to establish respect for these rights.
- I was also struck by the slowness in setting up means, especially laws. For example, it took several years to establish an international criminal court, and certain crimes are not legally defined, for example, the crime of aggression; there is no international definition of terrorism either. We still have to wait.
- the complexity and ambiguity of situations, and therefore of the remedies to be applied. For example, access to water in certain developing countries means that the poorest people, who live far away, have to pay for transportation of the water which is more expensive than before ...
- the importance of NGO’s. NGO’s are the eyes to see what is happening in the world and the voices to speak out. They can monitor the development of situations. It is the NGOs who, for a large part, have established the Millennium Development Goals. Along the same lines, it can be said that every action, even small or individual, is important.
- a few words about peace. Our institutions are no longer adequate: many were set up after the Second World War. Today, there are new situations. There is no longer a boundary between the local and the global. Peace, sustainable development and human rights are linked; there is a need for an integrated approach to all three. Solidarity does not stop at borders but is directed where there is a human need. Human beings must be placed at the centre.
Peace is a continuum, a culture; it requires education. Peace means adopting norms of tolerance, of dialogue with others. It also means having the right kind of memory: “forgetting enough to go forward and remembering enough so as not to repeat.” There is no reconciliation in silence. There is no reconciliation without acceptance of personal responsibility within a state or within oneself.
Françoise de Chezelle rscj
Province de France
To share what I experienced in taking part in this international conference at UNESCO, I would like to quote some extracts of what Ingrid Betancourt said to us in a video conference from the UN in New York, from where she was able to follow the final afternoon of our work.
When we speak of human rights, we are accused of being Utopian; I am a child of Utopia. It is only in Utopia that we can build a better world. (…) We must understand our role: the courage to speak out. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a “declaration”. It is we who speak. It is not a law, it is more than a law, it is the cry of the world. (…) We must touch human beings everywhere, and we touch them by words. Words are better than weapons. A word that expresses our faith, our soul, that allows us to say what is difficult to say. You feel very small in relation to nations, but you are not. Words are the best fighting instruments. (…) Yes, we have the right to interfere, the right to look at where men and women are suffering. The voice of NGO’s is important.
During these three days, as during the week in April 2007 which I spent with Cecile Meijer in New York, I was struck by the importance of conversations. It is because men and women speak to one another, seek solutions together, and enter into relationships with one another that slowly a little more justice comes into being. These three days of talks and workshops are also a major forum for the exchange of ideas, of addresses, of visiting cards among people one would probably never have met otherwise. It is also the witness of the persistence of those who believe in spite of all the obstacles that a more just world is possible, not the world in general, but this little corner of the planet or this particular situation for which an ONG has been set up. Situations of death are gradually transformed by endurance, by much generosity and work. The disproportion between these words and the immensity of the problems that they raise has filled me with a kind of hope, the hope expressed by Ingrid Betancourt: speaking to one another, seeking tirelessly together, this is the humble seed sown in the ground, which will eventually bear fruit. Far from calculated profiteering and immediate efficiency, it is the courage to speak, to talk together to denounce injustices, seeking solutions and putting them into practice that makes the world advance towards a more human humanity.
Isabelle Lagneau rscj
Province of France
I was very glad to take part in this conference, which allowed me to have this personal experience; moreover, the theme for me was well chosen, since we live in a world where human rights are treated with contempt, not recognised. And since people are almost completely unaware of human rights, they do not therefore demand them.
The aim of the UN is to support, encourage and promote human rights. To reaffirm human rights today is to defend the freedom of women and of other people who are powerless. Emphasis is placed on women because of two values that characterize them: “they are listened to and they give advice.”
Human rights education is information that helps to protect oneself because ignorance is an illness, said one speaker. Teaching human rights must be done in a participatory way if we want it to be useful to everyone. Human rights are above all a continual battle. We speak a great deal about human rights, but they are not there out in the field. It is no longer a time for talking; we must move into action. We must act in order to respect those who are in need. It is said, “The one who saves one person, saves everyone” (according to a speaker).
I therefore felt a call as a result of this conference: is it not possible to recommend that human rights should be taught from the earliest years in school? Moreover, education about human rights concerns the environment too, since there are no human rights without rights to the environment. It is in our interest to be good managers of what we produce: for example, waste material, so as not to harm the environment, and even so as not to contribute to a negative impact on agricultural production.
José Basaula rscj
Province of RDC
“The one who is ignorant is half dead”. These words are a powerful challenge to me as an educator: we must be well-informed so as to inform others, especially the young. People do not know about human rights; that is why these are so easily treated with contempt. We must also remember that “my freedom ends where that of the other begins”: rights and duties go together, as several speakers reminded us.
Ingrid Betancourt shared with us her surprise at how the culture of fear had grown in six years … It is in the name of “national security” that most democratic states violate human rights! It is the citizen who allows human rights to be respected: this is difficult today because citizens turn away, they are afraid. We hide behind procedures in order to turn away from universal rights (for example, torture). We must be aware of what is happening: no one can any longer say, “I did not know.”
On the contrary, it is the culture of peace which must motivate us and drive us to act. Peace is built on forgiveness; no one can give lessons to anyone else. “We must have the humility to recognize that there are no teachers but that we move forward together; we must make use of the knowledge of each one; our logics are different … to enter into dialogue is a risk …” And again, “the knowledge that the presence of the other brings leads us to live together in a different way.” “No one can change another person: only attentive listening and respect allow us to confront our positions and to change our way of acting…” “Culture divides when it shows the other as someone different.”
What a challenge for me as I read these notes in the light of the 2008 Chapter!
Maria Teresa Devoto rscj
Province of Italy