Ed Gillett

Human Rights Day 2012

on 10 December 2012

Today is Human Rights Day, celebrating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. Those who signed the document, 64 years ago today, could scarcely have foreseen some of the threats it would face in the early 21st century.

In agreeing Article 3, "the right to life, liberty and security of person", the Declaration's signatories probably didn't imagine a US Air Force contractor in Nevada using remote-controlled drone aircraft to kill villagers in North Waziristan, applying the death penalty without trial to anonymous men, women and children thousands of miles away.

When discussing execution, delegates would have spoken of hanging, firing squads or the electric chair, rather than the pseudo-medical brutality of the lethal injection. They might also have had some trouble recognising today's globalised economy, in which Arizona was left to import its execution drugs from a dodgy back-room office above a driving school in Acton.

Nor would someone in 1948 have anticipated the complex systems of international rendition and torture devised by the CIA and its private contractors, stretching across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. The speed and ubiquity of modern airline networks has helped propel detainees, and those responsible for abusing them, beyond the rule of law.

However, other contemporary threats to human rights would be depressingly familiar to those drafting the Universal Declaration, either having changed little in the intervening years, or coming full circle to echo past indignities.

The death penalty continues to be a hideous anachronism: just as in 1948, or 1848 for that matter, a defendant's chances of living or dying depend less on their actual innocence than on the quality of their lawyer, their social background, and even their ethnicity.

64 years ago, war veteran Wardell Henderson was executed in Oregon, despite public protests and concern that racism had played a part in his trial. Today, Linda Carty and Krishna Maharaj, both denied consular assistance and effective legal representation during their trials, remain at the mercy of a legal system which does not consider innocence relevant to someone's continued imprisonment or their prospects for execution.

Others, like Khadija Shah and her newborn baby, face imprisonment in abhorrent conditions, more medieval than modern, with their lives left to the whims of an arbitrary and unjust legal process; many before them have suffered similarly hideous fates.

Guantánamo Bay reminds us of nothing so much as the US internment camps of World War II. Held without trial or charge, men like Shaker Aamer remain imprisoned indefinitely, their human rights dismissed for the sake of political expediency and spurious claims of war-time necessity.

Beyond Guantánamo, there is the continued detention of men like Yunus Rahmatullah, handed over by British forces to be detained and tortured at Bagram airbase. It was to prevent abuses of this kind that the Fourth Geneva Convention was agreed, a year after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And yet Yunus remains imprisoned some eight years after being seized, the UK Government having washed their hands of him.

In celebrating Human Rights Day, and the progress made in defending and enriching many of our individual freedoms, we should also be circumspect. We must hold fast to the idea that these rights are universal, and must hold governments to account when they are abused. This is equally true whether those abuses stem from modern technological advances, or from the older, more familiar impulses of the powerful.

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