Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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A Strong International Voice 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, December 9 / 13

Zack Gross

Human Rights Day was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly as a way of celebrating and promoting its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, declared on December 10th, 1950.  All nations were expected to treat the Declaration as the common standard for how their people should be treated.

In 1993, 20 years ago, an Office was established for a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with a mandate to promote rights and protect people.  While this was a significant step, there is still very much to be done to protect people's rights, and one of the most prominent organizations doing that work is Amnesty International.

We have heard of Amnesty, which has chapters in more than 80 countries worldwide, as a group that promotes citizens getting together to write letters to press governments to respond to human rights concerns, both in individual cases and on more general issues.  The current “Write for Rights” campaign in Canada has already generated almost 15,000 letters.

Today's human rights issues that Amnesty is addressing include the situation of refugees and migrants in a world where conflict, economic collapse and natural disasters have put millions of people out of their homes and often, out of their countries of origin. 

Another is economic and social rights, ensuring that everyone has access to their basic needs of food, shelter, water and a means of livelihood.  A third issue is the status of Indigenous Peoples, most of whom have suffered centuries of dispossession and racism. 

And another one of many is Business and Human Rights, putting forward the idea that companies must exercise their corporate social responsibility, and that their practices should not impact negatively on the people in the regions where they operate.  A very interesting event took place recently in Manitoba, which included numerous business, government and civil society representatives to look at these issues, including conflict minerals (many of which power our computers, cellphones and cars), ethical investment, environmental impacts and fair trade.

Amnesty got involved the past couple of months in two high profile cases, the two Canadians who were detained without charges in Egypt (one a doctor, the other a filmmaker) but have now been set free and allowed to return home; and the concerns that many feel about potential human rights violations during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

On another level, there are letter writing campaigns underway right now related to a variety of individuals, groups and issues around the world.  One is the case of Miriam Lopez Vargas of Baja California, Mexico.  In February 2011, this mother of two was grabbed off the streets of Tijuana, taken by soldiers to a military barracks, tortured and raped until she signed a false confession of involvement in the drug trade.  After seven months awaiting trial, she was released. 

Although Maria Lopez has since identified her captors, no one has been brought to justice.  She is just one case of an apparent 500% increase in illegal capture and torture by authorities as part of the War on Drugs but also as part of a police/military system that does what it wants.  Amnesty, along with the Mexican National Commission for Human Rights, are calling for compensation, protection and lawful action by authorities.

Another case is of the citizens of Badia East on the edge of the national capital Lagos in Nigeria, West Africa.  In February of this year, two hundred sixty-six of their homes were demolished as part of a slum-clearing project without consultation or provision of another place to live.  This has left thousands living without shelter and basic necessities, with their homes, businesses and belongings lost.

Again, this instance is just one of many similar abuses taking place in Nigeria.  Ironically, this particular slum-clearing was part of an “urban renewal” project funded by the World Bank.

As Amnesty's Canadian arm believes in human rights here at home, too, it has been outspoken in recent years on health conditions in our First Nations communities.  The organization publishes an annual report that highlights human rights abuses in all parts of our world. 

While many of us may feel immune to our rights being violated by our governments or other powerful forces, it's important to know that there is a strong international voice to lobby on our behalf should the need arise.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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