Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bapu of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the International Human Rights Day on 10 December, I have posted an article which I wrote on June 2003 for the Malaysian Bar Council’s official newsletter, formerly called Infoline. This article has been edited for clarity.

The International Human Rights Day is celebrated every year in remembrance of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. While it is not a binding legal treaty, it has been unanimously adopted by all UN member states as a significant document which expresses the aspirations of the world towards protecting and promoting the respect for human rights.


I am not a writer but my recent trip to India has compelled me to share one of the most inspiring teachings left behind by one of the world’s most blessed figures, Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

I was never an avid museum-goer but visiting the Gandhi Smriti Museum in New Delhi proved to be the highlight of my trip to India, something which I will remember forever. I never thought I could learn so much about the true meaning of justice, humanity, compassion and peace within the hour I spent at the museum. To sum it all up, Gandhiji (as fondly referred to by the Indians) is indeed the Bapu of all the fundamental human rights values we aspire to achieve today.

I have spent several years trying to familiarise myself with human rights work. After awhile, the so many ideals I hold so dearly seem to evaporate slowly but surely against time. It was always difficult to maintain that same level of faith and commitment. I thought my trip to India had turned out to be what I needed most.

One of the things I find most surprising in a very disconcerting way was the fact that throughout the one year of my studies in International Law of Human Rights, I did not remember reading anything about Gandhiji’s work. As I stood reading Gandhiji’s vision and dream for India, I realise that most of the principles and values on human rights and equality that he had lived and breathed were also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). He had preached the principles of unity, equality, liberty, peace and justice before 1948, the year in which the UDHR was established. Although the United Nations Commission then chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt wrote the Declaration as an aftermath of the Second World War, Gandhiji had way in advance tried to pass on those values to his people.

Gandhiji united a nation of 300 million people through his peaceful approach and led India to the path of independence from the British. And I thought to myself, how lucky it was for the Indians to have such a revolutionary figure.

Gandhiji is famous for his principles such as the satyagraha or truth force whereby unjust laws are opposed with the force of truth and moral consciousness instead of violence. He once said, “I firmly believe that freedom won through bloodshed or fraud is no freedom.” His display of peaceful resistance during the British colonialism in India is truly laudable and something which the world should seriously reflect on in such a time where we are guarded against acts of terrorism and territorial aggression.

He also believed in the principle of equality during a time when India was strongly guided by the caste system. He treated those who were then labelled as the “untouchables” with equal respect and compassion. He promoted equal opportunities for women and advocated their rights to education. He wanted a united India where Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs live in harmony and peace.

Gandhiji could very well be a theologian, having read and mastered all the Holy Books of all the main religions in the world. He spent most of his remaining life promoting inter-faith values amongst the people of India. Although India and Pakistan are yet to resolve the persisting political conflict in Kashmir, I was delighted to witness the pluralistic community in India. Apart from Malaysia, India has been the most diversified country in terms of religion and culture I have been to. Hence, I think Gandhiji has again accomplished a great deal.

We recently had an inter-religious council workshop and I was surprised that nobody quoted Gandhiji’s values on inter-faith. If he had been alive today, I personally feel that he would have been the best person to engage in international peace talks.

He once said and I quote, “I believe in fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. I believe that they are all God-given and I believe that they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed. And I believe that, if only we could all of us read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of the followers of those faiths, we should find that they were at bottom all one and were all helpful to one another.”

When I read this, I looked back and asked myself how many Gandhis does the world have? How often do we come across such a man, who not only possessed but lived by the principles he truly believed in? Many people would say that figures such as Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela come a close second. I have no doubt that they have each in their own personal ways contributed to the betterment of their societies.

These personalities were Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and if we look further back, many other great figures were awarded prestigious prizes in recognition for their contribution to humanity. Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross received the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. Others include Mother Teresa in 1979, Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 and Yasser Arafat in 1994.

In 2001, the UN and Kofi Annan jointly became the recipients of the much coveted prize for his international peace-building effort as the Secretary-General of the UN. During that time, I was still serving as a UN Volunteer in East Timor. I remember receiving a personal message from Sergio Viera de Mello, the current Chairman of the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the Under Secretary-General for the UN Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET). He congratulated all the peacekeepers and volunteers in East Timor as we were technically representatives of the UN. I remember feeling exhilarated and proud, often joking that I was indirectly a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Gandhiji never received the Nobel Peace Prize. One may argue that he was never given what he deserved but I would say that he never needed the prize for anyone to acknowledge and recognise the legacy he had left behind for not only India but humanity as a whole. For a man who had turned up at the Buckingham Palace before the British Royal Family in just his loin cloth, such materialistic recognition would have meant nothing to him. So perhaps we could all do some serious thinking and compare how little the UN has achieved and how much Gandhiji has accomplished and touched the world.

His dreams for India were never fulfilled entirely during his lifetime. Poverty, corruption, political and religious conflicts are still prevalent today. Did he die in vain? I hope not for I think his teachings should not be confined to India alone, they should be a model and inspirations to all especially for those who believe in the UDHR.

To me, the UDHR is definitely not a Western concept as so many Asian leaders tend to claim. Gandhiji, a true bona fide South Asian man, had then exercised his rights to peaceful assembly and demonstration in order to liberate his people and free them from the yoke of slavery, discrimination and ignorance. I believe that his dreams would have been in vain if we no longer believe in the principles of the UDHR.

If my writing has appeared too idealistic, I will not apologise for it. How could one point a finger at another who has been given a huge dose of hope and faith in humanity from the legacy left behind by this blessed soul?

If you think that you need that dose, do visit the Gandhi Smriti Museum. If it is too much of an effort, you can still choose to watch Ben Kingsley on video as Gandhi, bearing in mind that it may not achieve quite the same effect. But hopefully it will help to inspire you today, in commemoration of the International Human Rights Day.

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