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Human Rights are Called Universal for a Reason

By Burma Campaign UK  •  June 11, 2015

For many years in Burma, a person carrying a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights risked arrest and even jail. Underground human rights networks distributed copies and organised discussions on the articles it contained. Drafted in the aftermath of World War II by a world horrified by the genocidal policies of Germany’s Nazi regime, the declaration sought to lay out the standard rights that every human being should enjoy.

The Nazis saw themselves, their race and their ideology, as superior to other races. In their minds this justified exterminating people whom they regarded as inferior or a threat. Their most vicious campaign of extermination was targeted at Jewish people, but their victims also included Gypsies, homosexuals and the mentally ill.

Jews were first dehumanised by the Nazis. They were described as foreigners even though most of them had lived in Germany and neighbouring countries for generations. They were accused of amassing wealth and being dishonest. The lie was fomented that they were conspiring to take over the country and even the whole world. As hate- speech and lies against Jews were propagated, with encouragement from the government, tensions rose and there were attacks on Jewish homes and shops.

The repression of the Jewish people increased, through official and unofficial discrimination. Jewish people were confined to terrible ghettoes; millions perished in concentration camps. The Nazis killed six million Jews. Writing in 1944 of the horror the Nazis inflicted on Europe, the Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’. It was defined as ‘the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group’.

In Asia during World War II, imperial Japan also saw itself as superior to other races. In Burma and the other countries they occupied, the Japanese presented themselves as liberators but looked down on the people as inferior. After World War II the world vowed never again and the system of global human rights as we know it was born. The terrible ideology of one race or religion regarding itself as more superior to others was obviously a key concern when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted.

Article one states: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article two states: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

The first two articles declare that we are all born equal and are entitled to all rights and freedoms regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion. These are some of the most fundamental principles in human rights. Significantly, the Declaration sought not just to place these obligations on states and theirgovernments, but on individuals and organisations as well, stating:

‘Now, therefore the General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms…’Are these principles being applied by all human rights and democracy activists in Burma today? Sadly, the answer is no.

Frightening echoes of what happened to the Jewish people under the Nazis can be found in Burma in the treatment of Muslims in general and Rohingya in particular. Some experts are warning that there is a danger of genocide in Burma. Many in Burma are concerned about the situation. But a surprisingly large number are either unconcerned, in denial or too afraid to speak out.

Genocide is the worst possible crime under international law. It would be reasonable to expect that even if there was the slightest possibility of genocide in Burma, more political and human rights leaders would be speaking out, or at least expressing concern.Have decades of propaganda and discrimination so effectively dehumanised the Rohingya that universal human rights are not regarded as applying to them. If he was still alive, General Ne Win, architect of the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law, would be very pleased to see how successful his policies and propaganda have been.

There is another possible parallel between the Nazis treatment of Jewish people and the Burma government’s treatment of Rohingya. The Nazis made Jews the scapegoat for many problems in Germany, such as poverty, corruption, and a mismanaged economy. Underlying prejudice enabled the Nazis to convince the people that it was the Jews who were to blame for these problems, not the Nazi government.

In Burma people also suffer from poverty, corruption and economic mismanagement. Is the Burma government fuelling hatred of an unwanted minority as a deliberate policy to distract the people from such problems as unemployment, poverty, electricity shortages, and the poor quality of education and health care? It is a trick many governments have tried to use since World War Two. If people in Burma honour the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is a trick they will not fall for.

Download the briefing English-Burmese here.

သတင္းထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္အတိုခ်ဳပ္ အဂၤလိပ္ဘာသာႏွင့္ ျမန္မာဘာသာကို ဤေနရာတြင္ ေဒါင္းလုပ္ရယူႏိုင္ပါသည္။

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