During the last couple
of months, I have witnessed two incidents where different individuals were in
no doubt of the fact that they knew their rights, once at a supermarket check
out and the other in a local post office.
It was also patently evident by the unspoken response to these
unilateral claims that the recipients thereof, too, were fully cognisant of
their own rights as with flashing eyes and squared shoulders returned the
compliment with interest.
It is sadly probable
that the situations in which the four individuals found themselves and which
gave rise to these brief altercations were probably in breach of all their
rights (the perpetrators being protected by a mass of rules and procedures) and
that, finding themselves on unsure ground, they chose the only ground that
saved face, they stood on their dignity.
The concept of Human
Rights has defied clarification for centuries.
The last serious attempt to define them was in 1948 with the drawing up
of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
According to Thomas Burgenthal, a former President of the Inter American
Court of Human Rights, the thirty odd articles of the Declaration gave the
legal concept of the original Charter of the United Nations Internationalised
Human Rights a moral force.
To mark the sixtieth
anniversary of the Declaration Seán Love, then with Amnesty International, and
Roddy Doyle,, with the co-operation of the Irish Times, conceived a project
whereby thirty odd writers were invited to write an imaginative piece in
response to a designated Article, these to be prefaced by Seamus Heaney. Beginning on March 15th 2008 and
weekly thereafter, the pieces appeared in the Irish Times and were subsequently
published in book form by the Liberties Press in November 2009 under the title From the Republic of Conscience.
The book is
informative on a number of levels. It
offers the reader a unique chance to actually read each of these Articles in
isolation. Generally such documents are
written in a language guaranteed to confuse and bewilder but here, the text is
clear and unambiguous, not to say uplifting.
Even then, it takes several readings for the full meaning of each
Article to set in and the result is explosive in its simplicity.
Then, the imaginative
piece that accompanies the Article gives the Declaration a human face and
brings the reader down to earth. Each
writer stamps his or her own personality on their interpretation and while the
results may vary from the ironic, funny, serious, sad to the satiric, they are
always interesting, often adding an unexpected dimension to the Article’s
meaning and ramification.
Perhaps the most
interesting level of all is the overall effect of the book on the reader,
particularly on his or her attitude to the whole issue of Human Rights. What becomes evident is that the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights is not worth the paper it is written on in
practical terms. Practically every
country in the world (especially those who ratified it) blatantly flouts it
when they choose or need to.
However, it is
extremely important that the Declaration exists. Underlining this, Heaney
writes in the introduction:
“Since it was framed, the Declaration has
succeeded in creating an international
moral consensus. It is always there as a means of highlighting abuse if not always
as a remedy: it
exists instead in the moral imagination as an equivalent of the gold
the monetary system.The articulation of its tenets has made them into
currency of sorts…it provides a world-wide amplification system for the
small voice’. “
Above all the book
reminds us that with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the Rest is far
from Silence. Whether or not it can be
translated into our daily lives is another question altogether.