Standing up for human rights

Leading experts in the field of human rights spoke at Regent’s University London on Monday night, on the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.

Telling a story of human rights, crimes committed in recent conflicts and attempts by humanity to deal with these crimes in order to prevent them in future, victims shared their personal stories, and experts explored developments since the inception of the Declaration.

Human Rights

Chaired by Dr Neven Andjelic, Reader in International Relations and Human Rights at Regent’s, the speakers were:

  • Dr James Gow, Professor of International Peace and Security, and Director of the International Peace Programme at King’s College London
  • Jasmin ‘Jazz’ O’Hara, a British human rights activist working in the field of international refugee support, and co-founder of the Worldwide Tribe Charity
  • Dr Nena Tromp, teacher of the Department of European Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and a part of the leadership research team for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
  • Dr Maria Varaki, lecturer in international law at the War Studies Department, King's College London, and former senior research fellow with the Erik Castren Institute of International Law and Human Rights in Helsinki

Professor Aldwyn Cooper, Vice Chancellor of Regent’s, opened the evening by saying that human rights are relative to all of us, every single day.

“Thanks to the Declaration, the dignity of millions has been lifted.

“Human rights are everywhere, and they have little meaning if they’re not respected everywhere. Unless we ensure that they’re respected everywhere, they have little meaning anywhere.

“The Declaration empowers us all - the principles enshrined in the Declaration are as relevant today as they were in 1948. Perhaps even more relevant. Whenever and wherever humanity’s values are abandoned, we are all at greater risk.”

Dr Maria Varaki said that freedom of expression is being challenged once more, and that the biggest threat we face is the silent bystander. “Our real problem is indifference before cruelty. We live in an era where our basic human rights are under threat,” and combatting that “requires civil participation, and it requires non indifference. Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world.”

Drawing our attention to the 70th anniversary of the Genocide Convention only the day before on December 9, Dr James Gow discussed the ambiguity surrounding the contentious subject of human rights.

“I want to impress on us all the ambiguity around human rights. It’s an ambiguity that prima facie is not there, it’s very simple – there are human rights and they’re a good thing, and everybody needs to protect them. Of course, they’re not going to go against that.

“Actually, human rights becomes a very difficult, sometimes contested, sometimes complicated and often ambiguous despite its essential clarity, phenomenon.

“Whether it’s about protecting human rights or promoting human rights, at any one moment, given our conflicts evolving often conflictual societies with different perspectives within them, one person will perceive it as good, where one will perceive it as detrimental.”

The Declaration and the Genocide Convention, says Dr Gow, “put down a vital marker. There’s a standard, there are tests to be met, and people will stand against it.

“The key thing to take away is a reference point for change. For getting things right. For peace and security. It’s the litmus test for being on the right side of history.”

Dr Nena Tromp, formerly the principal researcher on history and politics in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, contrasted international humanitarian law and human rights law.

“Law and justice are completely different things. If someone is acquitted, it doesn’t mean this person is innocent. It means they weren’t able to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“There is a huge difference between international humanitarian law and human rights law. International humanitarian laws are about how to wage a war, not how to stop and prevent a war. It’s about how we control waging the wars so we contain the damage.

“Human rights law is not something that started in 1948. For me personally, it’s my favourite document of all time. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is so short and so intuitive. Every human being should get a copy in his or her language at birth.”

To conclude the evening, Meseret Berkeret, a current refugee in the UK who has been helped by the Worldwide Tribe, stunned the audience with his personal tale of fleeing his home country at 13.

Eritrea, where Mez was born, has compulsory military service from the age of 13. “I left my country because I didn’t want to do military service. You have to join the military at 13. Instead of going to school, we hold guns.”

Human Rights

Without even the chance to tell his parents where he was going, Mez was forced to flee through Sudan, Libya, Italy, and France, where he hid underneath the Eurostar, finally making the 40 minute journey to London in grave danger.

Once there, Mez was put with the O’Hara family, where he says he now couldn’t be happier and calling himself “one of the lucky ones”. Jaz O’Hara, his foster sister, shocked by what she found in the so-called Jungle refugee camp in Calais, wrote a Facebook post that gathered over 65,000 shares overnight, leading to a fundraising campaign. Her human rights activism extended beyond Calais, and she founded the Worldwibe Tribe charity.