Why you should care
Resistance is not futile, as these tales show.
Sixty-five years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world is still ridden, and riven, by war and injustice. Human rights itself has matured into a complicated and often contentious field. Its practitioners, though bent on making the world a better place, are not perfect saints. Instead, we at OZY find that they’re often conflicted, very passionate and utterly fascinating.
Consider our piece on Samantha Power, the United States’ new Ambassador to the United Nations. The fiery 43-year-old made her name in human rights, calling out U.S. foreign policy for blindness, hypocrisy and arrogance. She’s still thought of as a human rights specialist — she wrote a career-making, Pulitzer prize-winning book on preventing genocide — but OZY pegs her as a “humanitarian hawk,” not a feel-good peacenik. That means Power supports military strikes to prevent atrocities, even at the risk of civilian lives.
Then there’s Sarah Holewsinki, a 36-year-old who’s devoted to trying to make war less brutal — namely by convincing warmakers to reduce, account for and mitigate civilian casualities. Instead of preaching against war, Holewsinki and her organization, the Center for Civilians in Conflict, work with militaries to find practical solutions to reducing civilian harm. The work is not without controversy: “The wishful notion that war can be refashioned into a therapeutic, surgical instrument by activist lawyers is elite santería with little basis in the reality of war, though its proponents of course present themselves as ‘pragmatists,’ as opposed to those unreasonable ‘pacifists,’” wrote one of our commenters. And yet, because of its pragmatism, Holewinski’s organization is one of the few humanitarian outfits that warmakers actually listen to.
If anyone can show how counterintuitive the world of human rights can be, it’s Mario Joseph, a human rights lawyer in Haiti whose latest big case is against the United Nations. The United Nations, self-proclaimed protector of human rights, sponsor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, etc.? Why, yes. It stands accused of inadvertently importing cholera into Haiti. The disease has, to date, killed more than 8,000 Haitians. Although the great weight of scientific evidence is on Joseph’s and his clients’ side, the U.N. has so far refused to acknowledge fault. This month, Joseph and his team sued the U.N. in American court. Stay tuned.
Many think of the Olympics as a chance to celebrate our common humanity and love of sportsmanship, competition and athleticism — this despite differences in nationality, religion, gender and race. But a spate of Russian antigay laws has led to much consternation around the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. With its eye on Sochi, OZY looked back to the 1968 Olympics, when African-American medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a salute to human rights — and against racial discrimination. We remember Smith and Carlos for the courage of their silent gesture, but the protest was bitterly received back home.
Indeed, as our flashback on Bartolomé de las Casas suggests, defending human rights has never been simple or straightforward. The 16th-century Spanish priest vociferously opposed the atrocities that Spanish conquistadors inflicted on the people of the so-called New World. Some call him the world’s first human advocate; others, the “Apostle of the Indians.” But Las Casas didn’t always get it right. Early in his career, he advocated importing a new labor force … from Africa. This led to accusations that Las Casas supported the soon-to-come transatlantic slave trade. Though he recanted later in life, Las Casas’ error points up how even the most farsighted people can have blind spots.