70 years ago today, a group of courageous men and women came together to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone in the history of civilisation.
In the wake of the horrors of the Second World War, people decided they needed a document, a mechanism to protect humanity against future atrocities like the Holocaust. The primary inspiration for the Universal Declaration was the Nazis’ shockingly brutal mass murder of European Jews, gypsies, and other marginalized groups. The world wanted, needed to be reminded of the inherent dignity within humanity.
A few generations later, human dignity is again being trampled by dictators.
Four years ago, when the Islamic State attacked Yazidi villages in northern Iraq, I moved to the area and began voluntary aid work in Yazidi camps. I went to Mosul and met with Yazidi women who had been traded as slaves. I witnessed terrible human rights violations — rape, enslavement, genocide, the loss of human dignity.
More recently I have witnessed terrible human rights violations in my own country.
During the military curfews of 2015 and 2016, when my city, Diyarbakir, the largest city in southeast Turkey, faced heavy bombardment from the Turkish armed forces. Dead bodies were left lying in the street for months. Dozens of people were burnt alive while hiding out in basements. Detainees were tortured, and much more.
The Universal Declaration did not prevent the Turkish state from committing horrible human rights violations and war crimes against its own citizens.
Turkish citizens and the international community have largely closed their eyes to these crimes, and to the continuing troubles in our region. And it’s worth remembering that Hitler came to power not only because of the support of the German people, but because the rest of the world turned a blind eye as his actions became increasingly troubling.
The Universal Declaration is a moral force for all of us. But against dictators and fascist regimes, we need more than moral force. The Declaration did not prevent 10-year-old Cemile’s mother from having to put her daughter’s dead body in the refrigerator to keep it from decomposing. The Declaration did not prevent more than 150 Kurdish youth from being burnt alive in Cizre basements. The Declaration did not prevent the 7,000-year-old UNESCO Heritage Site in the center of Diyarbakır, my hometown, from being destroyed by government forces.
In recent years, anybody in Turkey who calls for peace and human rights and peace has been labelled a terrorist and tossed in prison or forced to leave the country, which are violations against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Turkey signed the Declaration 69 years ago, but it has still not come into force.
70 years after the Declaration, the world’s people remain deeply vulnerable to the cruelty of dictators and authoritarian leaders. Millions face ethnic cleansing, genocide, persecution, discrimination, the lack of basic liberties, and other atrocities. Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned that the global system “that gave teeth to the vision of the Universal Declaration is being chipped away by governments and politicians increasingly focused on narrow, nationalist interests”.
Even as someone who has witnessed countless human rights violations, I have always believed that human dignity would win in the end. But after what I have witnessed, from Mosul to Cizre, from Shengal to Kobane, and from Şırnak to Diyarbakır, I now have my doubts. Human rights have never been so vilified, human life has never been so cheapened, human dignity has never been so trampled upon.
70 years after a group of courageous people came together to agree to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is time to take another courageous step. It is time to tell all regimes, states and dictators that human rights are truly human rights. They are not local or cultural. They are not Western or Eastern. They are not regional or national. They are universal. Respecting them is not a choice; it is a legal obligation. Violating these rights needs to carry heavier consequences.
The sad reality is that, states and leaders continue to violate the Universal Declaration without any real consequences. Today there is no real protection for the people of the world against genocide or systematic atrocities. Today if dictators remain in power, if slavery continues, if in my country we are still begging to bury our loved ones with dignity, if we are imprisoned for demanding human rights, it is not only our president and other leaders who are guilty, it is all of us.
Without accountability and without mechanisms to forcefully combat impunity, these atrocities will continue. Do we honestly want to make “Never Again” mean never again?
If we do, we need to create a legitimate authority able to adequately punish violators and save people from all variety of atrocities. Let’s establish a strong international mechanism to protect us from future Adolf Hitlers.
We know they are out there. Let’s make sure we’re ready to stop them.