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Today is a pretty important anniversary. Sixty years ago the world’s self-proclaimed civilized countries got together and signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rumored to be the most translated document in the world, it’s available in English, though most of us haven’t read it.
All kinds of governments agreed to guarantee universal human rights – including the United States – we signed on, too. We all promised we’d treat people – people from our own country and people from other countries – with dignity. As it turns out, a number of the signatories didn’t keep their word. We’re one of them.
We shouldn’t be surprised. In 60 years countries go through quite a few changes. There are rebellions, invasions, civil wars, military coups and stolen elections. And after all those leadership changes, what some countries once thought was true becomes a lie, and the promises their past rulers made get broken.
In 1948, 60 governments pledged to educate, feed, clothe and administer health care to themselves and their global neighbors because of the unspeakable atrocities they had witnessed.
The soldiers, generals and government officials who walked through the POW camps and gas chambers had good reason to sign documents pledging fair play and decency to all – regardless of race, gender, religion or national origin.
But some of us have lost track of why we enthusiastically signed the UDHR. Some who signed on, no matter how well-intentioned, lost control of their destinies. Afghanistan in 1948 undoubtedly – at the time – intended to educate its children regardless of sex. But decades later when the Taliban took control, this promise was broken.
And look what’s become of Iran in the 60 years since it signed. We made “like-minded” promises to one another back in 1948 but fewer than 30 years later they took our countrymen hostage. Now its president denies the Holocaust – ironically one of the realities that prompted the UDHR in the first place. When these countries were led by a different kind of leader, we could count on their word and believe in their resolve.
Now we engage in regime change in Afghanistan and threaten it in Iran.
And we aren’t the only ones. I started counting the number of violent coups that caused other signatories of the UDHR to violate human rights and, frankly, it’s disheartening. So many good countries – at one time or another – went bad: Ethiopia, Pakistan, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador and more. You probably noticed that many of the countries that have sanctioned state-sponsored bloodshed got a lot of help from the U.S., but not all.
Some governments remain brutal regardless of our designs.
You remember Burma, now called Myanmar. Just seven months ago, the military junta that runs that country wouldn’t allow relief organizations to help, even though a cyclone had killed more than 84,000 people. We were promising to be good guys on that one, but the junta didn’t believe us.
Some genuinely evil leaders think that we’ll sneak operatives in and overthrow their governments on the pretense of helping. They choose their own political objectives over human life. And we justifiably condemn them for it even though some would argue we have done the same.
If these accounts confuse you because it doesn’t seem the United States is fully committed to the UDHR, then you are not alone. Heck, our highest-ranking military leaders aren’t always sure if torture is torture; so how can we expect them to stop it when it’s occurring?
Go to The New Yorker’s Web site (www.newyorker.com) and you can read about Gen. Antonio Taguba. He investigated the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, and briefed Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others the day before the secretary testified before Congress.
Don’t read this if you’re squeamish.
In the June 2007 New Yorker piece, Taguba recounted: In the meeting, the officials professed ignorance about Abu Ghraib. “Could you tell us what happened?” Wolfowitz asked. Someone else asked, “Is it abuse or torture?” At that point, Taguba recalled, “I described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum, and said, ‘That’s not abuse. That’s torture.’ There was quiet.”
Well Gen. Taguba, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “The cruelest lies are often told in silence.”
Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.