December 8, 2001 - Boston Reaseach Center: Ethiopia RPCV Betty Burkes speaks at Cambridge Forum on Human Rights

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Ethiopia: Peace Corps Ethiopia : The Peace Corps in Ethiopia: December 8, 2001 - Boston Reaseach Center: Ethiopia RPCV Betty Burkes speaks at Cambridge Forum on Human Rights

By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, May 25, 2003 - 1:41 pm: Edit Post

Ethiopia RPCV Betty Burkes speaks at Cambridge Forum on Human Rights

Caption: Virginia Straus, Peter Smith, Betty Burkes, Joshua Rubenstein, and Pat Suhrcke of Cambridge Forum

Read and comment on this story from the Boston Reaseach Center on Ethipia RPCV Betty Burkes, chair of the United States section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, who was part of a panel at the Cambridge Forum on Human Rights at:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Powerful Vision for Change*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Powerful Vision for Change

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Cambridge Forum, the Coalition for a Strong United Nations, and the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century collaborated to produce a dialogue on this powerful vision for change.

Peter Smith, Boston co-chair of the Coalition for a Strong United Nations, began his remarks about the Declaration with a brief summary: "The Declaration emphasizes the right of every individual grounded only on her or his humanity. Everyone has the right to work, to a fair trial, to social security, to freedom of thought and conscience and religion, to medical care, to assembly, to food, to freedom of speech, to education, to housing, to freedom of movement, to participation in the cultural life of the community, and to freedom from torture and degrading treatment. Likewise, everyone is entitled to a social and international order, a life-sustaining environment, and peace."

"It's a very exciting time in our life on this planet," Betty Burkes, chair of the United States section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, acknowledged. "Fifty years after the Declaration of Human Rights was created and presented is a particularly wonderful time to pause and consider what's happened since it was presented to the world." She went on to inquire why rights needed to be defined and to ask, "What does that say about my estrangement and my isolation as one person in the community from the others in community?"

Ms. Burkes, formerly a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia, observed: "It's been clearly shown that laws and codes of behavior do not teach respect. I can remember, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, that there was a slogan, We don't care what you think; it's how you act that matters. Thirty years later, I realize that if we don't address what's in other people's hearts and minds, if we don't engage each other in a dialogue, then all the declarations on human rights will not matter."

Betty Burkes continued, "If we don't address the things that separate us, we will not deliver what we're after. What we're really after is creating communities that sustain life and do not promote war and death. What we're after are relationships with others that are meaningful."

Northeast regional director of Amnesty International Joshua Rubenstein suggested that the Universal Declaration was one of the founding documents of the United Nations because "the victors in the war were determined to set a new standard for how governments should behave--and perhaps should be made to behave--for their own citizens. The Universal Declaration was meant to be an expression of hope that the post-war years would witness a renaissance of respect toward individuals." However, he admitted, "the United Nations failed to establish any meaningful machinery that would either monitor the abuse of human rights, enforce human rights standards, or bring government leaders to justice."

Just as an individual who robs a bank should be subject to arrest, Rubenstein insisted, so should government officials who carry out gross violations of human rights be held liable. The regional director of Amnesty International was pleased to see that "this past June there was an attempt on the part of the international community to establish an international criminal court," but he was not happy to see that the court would have to be subject to the votes of the Security Council: "We all know what that means--that any one of the five permanent members could veto an initiative by this international criminal court. That is a serious hampering of such a court."

Josh Rubenstein concluded with an exhortation to his audience: "The one thing Amnesty cannot do is enforce, is hold governments accountable other than in the form of international public opinion. So, if there's a message I would leave with you tonight, it's to go back to the promise of the Universal Declaration and insist that it be more than just an expression of hope."

The international activist acknowledged that groups like Amnesty emphasize the civil and political rights provisions of the Universal Declaration "because we think that is one way we can be effective in this world and because we firmly believe that if you don't have the right to say what you want, it's very unlikely you will get what you need. But at the same time we do not mean to imply that the social and economic rights that are also delineated in the Universal Declaration are somehow secondary. We should approach the struggle to guarantee social and economic rights with the same kind of determination that we employ when we insist that our political and civil rights be respected by governments." Audience members urged that attention be paid to countries like Argentina and Uruguay where horrendous violations against women and children have been perpetrated as well as to countries like Albania and Sri Lanka, recently the sites of people's revolutions, which are now extremely vulnerable politically and economically.

Betty Burkes suggested, in response to questions from the audience, that the fundamental work we must do is to change the values that have created the culture in which we live. Josh Rubenstein lamented the fact that, clearly, we do not have the political will to intervene to prevent genocides which, even today, are occurring.

Referring to his religious tradition, Mr. Rubenstein observed about political activism, "The Talmud teaches that we're not obligated to complete the task but we are obligated to begin it."

Echoing Josh's sentiments, Betty Burkes concluded, "We must inquire continually into the way we live our lives in the world, into our relationship to others, and our accountability and responsibility. We must have deep compassion for ourselves and for others around us. We may not, as Josh indicated, complete the journey in the way that we envision, but we have to begin."

--Helen Marie Casey

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