Creating a Human Rights Culture

Website for Dr. Joseph Wronka

Professor of Social Work, Springfield College, Massachusetts USA
Representative to the United Nations in Geneva for the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW)
Fulbright Scholar in Social Justice, Poverty, and Human Rights
Author


In democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not its taste, but its effect...  - Former U.S. Senator William J. Fulbright



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Definition and Relevance of Human Rights

                     Toward the Creation of a Human Rights Culture
                                The Key for a Socially Just World

    Ultimately, the purpose of this website is to suggest social actions for the educated layperson to create a socially just world constructed from the pillars of human rights.  The aim of these social actions is to move towards the creation of a human rights culture among people throughout the world so that everyperson, everywhere can have their rights guaranteed. In brief, human rights culture is a "lived awareness" of human rights principles in one's mind and heart, dragged into one's everyday life. Principles of such documents, therefore, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be known not only cognitively, that is, in the "head," but also on the feeling level, the "lived" level of the heart. It is not good enough for society to only "know," for example, that health care, shelter, and security in old age, are human rights, as enunciated in the Universal Declaration, it is important for a society to act upon this knowledge in ways that can implement these rights for every person, everywhere. But the journey from the mind to the heart, is a long one, longer still to drag this lived knowledge, which is power, into our everyday lives.

The Historical Context

Very briefly, the United States called the Conference of Evian (1938) to stop the abuses of the Third Reich, given reports, among other things, of streams of refugees flowing out of Germany.  Many of the nations of the world met in this resort town in France to see what they could do.  The conference, obviously, was a failure because other countries of the world did not want to bring attention to their own abuses, such as the Soviet Union's own Gulag, an extensive array of their own camps of concentration;  Europe's vast colonial empires; and mass extermination of Indigenous Peoples and the legacies of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the Americas.  They met again in Bermuda, only to have the same disastrous result.  

What ensued was one of the most terrible pogroms in human history that of the Holocaust resulting in the killing of roughly 10 million innocents, primarily Jews, but, also Gypsies, homosexuals, Poles, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others inimical to the Third Reich.  Ultimately, an estimated 72 million were killed in the debaucheries of World War II, including the victims of phenomenally sophisticated weapons, like the atomic bomb.  In order for this never to happen again, many of the countries of the world formed the United Nations on October 24, 1945, dedicated to peace, security, and human rights. The world has come a long way since the Conference of Evian, such that in this new millennia what goes on in one country is entirely the concern of other countries. There must be some kind of international accountability!
 Human rights then is relevant because today no government would dare say that is against human rights.  This social construct "human rights" has become then a powerful idea that can move people to create a socially just world. Perhaps it was Martin Luther King who, when he spoke of the human rights revolution, expressed the importance of human rights, when he said simply:  "The era of civil rights is over. The human rights era has begun."

Given this historical context, this website is an attempt to suggest social action strategies that ought to be useful for the educated layperson as she or he embarks upon this journey. In reviewing these pages, please keep in mind that Eleanor Roosevelt, Chairperson of the Drafting Committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wanted a document that was for the educated layperson, not the doctorate in jurisprudence. She hoped that all the children of the world would know the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as children in the United States are aware of the Bill of Rights. One needn't have a doctorate, a master's, a bachelor's degree or esoteric certificate/speciality in the helping or health professions to work towards the creation of a human rights culture. One must simply have the desire to learn and to do. Passion and commitment also helps.

Information as Power

    To be sure, information is power. In this Second World Decade of Human Rights Education there is a global push to have educational institutions from the elementary to graduate and professional schools to teach and integrate human rights principles into their curricula. If you follow the Links here religiously, you will note that there are numerous human rights documents from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to those on the eradication of sexism, racism, and disablism to principles of medical ethics and the protection of persons with mental illness.  As stated, Eleanor Roosevelt did want all grammar school children to know about all their rights, specifically as asserted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But, we must take this call to consciousness, further, to include discussion, debate, and action on the "progeny," of the Universal Declaration. Thus, a major challenge for all social justice/human rights advocates is simply to teach others about human rights.

  Rights as Having Corresponding Duties  

Issues are complicated, however, as 
every right has a corresponding duty, a such that it can easily be said that what we are talking about is a culture of human duties. Thus, the right to health care requires the duty for each of us to keep healthy, exercise, and eat correct foods.  Yet, we must remember that it is the duty of government to create a "social and international order" as stated in the Universal Declaration (Article 28) so that the international human rights definition of the right to food that it is reasonably priced, nutritious, accessible, culturally relevant and at an affordable cost becomes a reality so that all humans have  ample opportunities  to develop not only in body, but in mind and heart as well. 

The Interdependency and Indivisibility of Human Rights

    Such a human rights culture will necessitate a "lived awareness" also of the interdependency and indivisibility of rights. In other words, as organs of the human body function interdependently, so, too, do human rights. In brief, the right to health care, as a case in point, is dependent upon such rights as the right to food, mentioned briefly above; the right to  education (our health practitioners must be educated); the right to work (work must be socially useful, contribute to the development of the human personality and pay a reasonable wage); and rest and leisure (workers must have reasonable time to engage in leisure, develop themselves personally, yet spend time with loved ones).

The Problem of Cultural Relativism


What further complicates matters is also what has become known as "cultural relativism."  
Thus, some cultures might believe that it is appropriate for a couple to be betrothed, rather than "choosing" each other, choice of spouse considered a human right according to the Universal Declaration. While we may also have a "knee jerk" response to condemn such cultures that engage in practices like female genital mutilation (FGM), we must recall the ancient injunction to examine the log in one's eye before plucking it from another's. Thus, some cultures condemning practices such as that may be rampant with deaths from anorexia nervosa or they may be stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, threatening the basic human right to peace. Ultimately, humility, then, not hypocrisy, ought to be at the basis for creating a human rights culture.  Whereas I agree with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that FGM and other traditional practices that are inimical to human rights standards ought to be abolished, we must also be aware that the same cultures that may find that practice abhorrent may also have policies and practices that violate such fundamental human rights like health care, shelter, security in old age, special protections for mothers and children, and socially useful work which pay reasonable wages.

Creating a Human Rights Culture as a Paradox
    
Creating a human rights culture, then, is a kind of paradox. On the one hand, we have the standards set out in major human rights documents drafted by the United Nations and to some extent regional organizations like the African Union, the Organization of American States, the European Union,   and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. On the other hand, we must recognize, like Eleanor Roosevelt, Chairperson of the Drafting Committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who said of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that it was a "good document... not a perfect one," and that human rights discussions cannot take place in philosophic-historical vacuum. Perhaps, it is acknowledging our responsibility to The Other, as the Holocaust survivor and philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has written about and our questioning together, acknowledging the importance of incorporating the voices of the oppressed in the policy debates which, ultimately, always have to do with ensuring our and others' human rights. Said other ways, it is entirely akin to the novelist/philosopher Albert Camus' notion of the "philosophy of limits," that is, we cannot know everything, (therefore, we cannot kill anyone).  The philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty had also urged us to engage in  the "happiness of reflecting together,” which in part may mean a continually critical, yet, respectful assessment of  human rights documents, especially as they compare with domestic social policies, that may help us bring about a human rights culture where we treat one another with decency and human dignity.

   Only Chosen Values Endure
 
    Only chosen values endure and it is our adherence to the notion that we cannot know everything and that the questioning together, or the "happiness of reflecting together"  may help us begin to tackle violations of human rights with humility. But, be careful.  As Eleanor Roosevelt said often, "Hell is paved with good intentions". Perhaps that was more eloquently stated by former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who said:"The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning, but without understanding".  In sum perhaps, what we need to do is to engage in constant dialogue with those we are trying to "help," so that we work "with" others, not "for" others in ways that can guarantee their human rights, whose ultimate purpose is to fulfill human need and promote well-being.

  In Solidarity with Occupation Wall Street

Whereas there may be some debate concerning what the Occupation Wall Streeters want, one merely needs to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  All of their concerns to have a socially just order that can make adequate food, a good education, a socially useful job, and other human rights a reality can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other documents that followed. Creating a human rights culture ought to be part of their clarion cry in any direct non-violent forum consistent with the basic human right to peaceful assembly.



Joseph Wronka's latest book is Human Rights and Social Justice: Social Action and Service for the Helping and Health Professions.  In brief, this book examines how human rights and social justice can serve as a conceptual framework for social policy and practice among the helping and health professions, broadly defined to include social work, psychology, psychiatry, psychiatry, medicine, nursing, and public health, which have recognized the importance of human rights principles. The International Federation of Social Work, for example, asserts that from its conception social work has been a human rights profession; the American Public Health Association encourages schools in the health professions to make human rights a fundamental component of their curriculum. Joseph Wronka takes an interdisciplinary, humanistic, phenomenological, and educated layperson's approach arguing for a human rights culture, that is, a "lived awareness of human rights principles in one's mind, heart, and body, carried into one's everyday life.

Contact Information:
Email
Work Telephone: 413-748-3067
Fax: 413-748-3069
Address: School of Social Work, Springfield College, 263 Alden Street, Springfield, MA 01109 USA


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