The diplomats who gathered in chilly Paris sixty-three years ago today to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lodged in the best hotels that still-shaken city had to offer. Occupied Paris was then liberated Paris, like so much of urban Europe besieged by refugees and survivors of the ghastly enterprise that was the Holocaust.
More than an adjective links that astonishing day to this year’s Occupy encampments, including the one around the feet of James B. Duke on my campus. Inspired as much by the Arab Spring as our own financial meltdown, Occupy protestors see human rights as being about more than beatings, torture and fair trials. As framers like Eleanor Roosevelt intended, the rights we have as humans include fundamental guarantees to housing, education, health care and jobs.
There are also human links between the two movements. Stéphane Hessel was a student when the Nazis rolled into France, and fled to work in London with leader-in-exile Charles de Gaulle. In advance of the invasion of Normandy, Hessel parachuted into France to organize Resistance networks. The Gestapo caught him and subjected him to a form of torture called the “baignoire,” a form of drowning similar to waterboarding. Hessel survived two concentration camps before the Allies prevailed.
As part of a French delegation, Hessel helped draft the Universal Declaration, beginning a distinguished career as a human rights activist that continues into his 90s.
Hessel became a surprising symbol of the Occupy movement this year, when his slim book, “Time for Outrage,” began flying from bookstore shelves. In it, he argues that the outrage we see on the streets is entirely justified. Even as “Europe lay in ruins,” he argues, there was a much stronger social safety net in the works. Corporations did not have a stranglehold on legislatures from Washington to London and his own beloved City of Lights.
Hessel has also spoken out strongly against the human rights violations that have become accepted in the “war on terror”. I can only imagine how he would respond to the current defense spending bill being discussed in the U.S. Senate. A provision grants the military the power to arrest terror suspects, including U.S. citizens, in the United States and hold them indefinitely, much as Hessel himself was held by the Germans.
“I think the word ‘security’ is one of the most dangerous words that can be used by governments,” Hessel said in a recent interview on Democracy Now. “They say, ‘For reasons of security, we cannot accept this, we cannot do that, we cannot do the other.’ Security is all right, but freedom is even more important.”
Since 1948, the world has become somewhat brighter for human rights. While the Universal Declaration has no binding legal power, its language has inspired dozens of crucial treaties guaranteeing fair trial, outlawing torture and protecting the rights of women, children, refugees and minorities. Legendary abuses like apartheid in South Africa, “disappearances” in Argentina and Chile, and genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have spurred new efforts at coordinated action.
Some argue that we are now experiencing a “justice cascade,” when perpetrators, even powerful former dictators like General Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, are held accountable to a strengthening and expanding international and domestic justice system.
And though the brutal grip of power of some, like North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il or Syria’s Bashir al-Assad, remains beyond the reach of international outrage, dictators are fewer in number than before, and more vulnerable. The same could be said for our own leaders, among them former vice president Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has refused to investigate how and with whom Cheney worked to lead the United States to what the former Wyoming congressman called “the dark side” of torture and “disappearances,” all in the name of a false security.
But if recent history is any guide, that reckoning will certainly come in time.
North Carolina has its own accounting to do for human rights. The furor over the proposed repeal of the Racial Justice Act – intended to prevent race from skewing juror verdicts in life or death cases – is one example of how human rights remains a front-page issue. As a state, we have yet to address how our taxpayer-funded airports have been used by Central Intelligence Agency contractors to launch planes that took dozens of terror suspects to secret sites to be tortured.
Hessel’s “Time for Outrage” has sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 10 languages, with several more planned. He draws sell-out crowds to his public lectures, where his humility and courage are evident. Apart from his obvious commitment, perhaps his real talent is this – he has found a title and theme that every generation can embrace as their own.