Friday, February 27, 2015

Marking Human Rights Day in Amherst

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,...

As I noted in a recent post, the Massachusetts legislature honored the Amherst Human Rights Commission with a special citation on the occasion of our first official Black History Month ceremony last year.

The charge of the Commission is “to ensure that no power goes unchecked, and that all citizens are afforded equal protection under the law,” specifically: "to insure [sic] that no person, public or private, shall be denied any rights guaranteed pursuant to local, state, and/or federal law on the basis of race or color, gender, physical or mental ability, religion, socio-economic status, ethnic or national origin, affectional or sexual preference, lifestyle, or age."

An earlier version of the statement spoke, rather more ambitiously, of "promot[ing] economic and social justice for all citizens through means of mediation, education, and enforcement of local, state, federal, and international human rights laws”--above all, as embodied in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Although the Declaration finds no formal resonance in the official documents, it nonetheless embodies the spirit that moves the Commission. Accordingly, it has become our custom for the Select Board each December to issue a proclamation for the celebration of International Human Rights Day, on the anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By tradition, the Human Rights Commission then marks the occasion with a candlelight vigil and reading of the Declaration on the Town Common in the evening (often followed by a thematic presentation on a subsequent day).

Members of the Amherst Human Rights Commission and supporters who celebrated the Declaration last December included  Department of Human Resources/Rights Director Deborah Radway, Human Rights Commission Chair Gregory Bascom, Bonnie McCracken, Frank Gatti, Eleanor Manire Gatti, and Robert Pam


"Many of the assumptions about who wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are wrong. The less known story of the men and women who wrote this foundational, emancipatory and anti-colonial document must be told in today's world."

Even those familiar with the Declaration probably do not know the story behind it. Some years back, Gita Sahgal, founder of the Centre for Secular Space, and the former Head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International, took on this educational challenge.

These are challenging times, she observed. On the one hand, modern philosophers reject the whole concept of demonstrable or natural rights as a throwback to an earlier, naïve age (Alasdair MacIntyre: “tantamount to belief in witches and unicorns”), while on the other, some strains of leftism and postmodernism reduce such supposed “rights” to “the political philosophy of cosmopolitanism” that “‘constitutionalise[s]‘ the normative sources of Empire.” (I’m feeling guilty already.) As Sahgal drily observes, those fighting the Bush administration’s practice of torture and the continued existence of the Guantanamo detention facility “would be surprised to see themselves as empire builders,” while the authors of the Declaration, for their part, would have found "absurd" “The idea that different peoples were endowed with separate rights,” as exemplified by the attempt to create a specific Declaration of Human Rights in Islam.

Citing the work of Susan Waltz, she explains that the origins and character of this fundamental document are both more varied and more radical than even its admirers realize. For example, it is commonly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt because she chaired the drafting committee, yet she contributed little to the concept or the content. (The idea in fact originated with the President of Panama.) The notion that “western” powers were responsible for the sections on civil and political rights, and the Soviet Union, for those on social and economic ones, is also a gross oversimplification. The desire for emancipation of all, emphasizing that rights applied to everyone everywhere, emerged as a major concern. Significant additions were made by newly de-colonized states regarding, slavery, discrimination, the rights of women, and the right to national self determination.

A host of countries, not least the smaller or emerging ones, saw to it that the document addressed social rights as well as the rights of colonized and other non-self-governing territories. An Indian activist fought for language referring to rights of ”human beings” rather than men, lest it be construed as discriminatory against women. Several Muslim delegates supported the clauses on freedom of religious choice. The final product was truly a collective one

Fifty nations voted in favor of the Declaration. None dared oppose it, but (big surprise), Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the Soviet Union abstained. Still explains a lot (plus ça change).

* * *
The Amherst Human Rights vigil on the occasion of the document's anniversary is at once a sobering (not to say: depressing) and an inspiring occasion: sobering because, in this town of nearly 38,000 residents--and some 27,000 students--where (as the expression goes) "only the 'h' is silent," I don't believe I have ever seen more than a dozen citizens from among our self-proclaimed liberals, progressives, radicals, and revolutionaries ever put on a down coat and show up. To be sure it's cold and dark, and yet . . . it is an important symbolic commitment to a vital cause. Again, it can be a lot to ask for a symbolic 30-minute gesture on a frigid December night. (I freely admit that I myself am at times the laziest person in the world.) Still, . . . . you get the point.

I hope that residents, and above all, my fellow members of Town government--employed, elected, and appointed--will in future consider taking part in what for me is one of the most moving political experiences of the year. When we hold the ceremony, we take turns reading from the Declaration, basically one clause/per person at a time. I have to confess that I often have to suppress a shudder when my turn comes, no matter which paragraph is at issue. The preface is a stirring document:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

How can a chill not run down one's spine when one contrasts the noble goals and innocent hopes of 1948 with--taking all progress into account--the atrocities of the present day?

Scenes from past vigils


On the evening of December 9, one of the first that felt truly cold in what has been a comparatively mild season, a small group gradually assembled under the guidance of tireless Chair Reynolds Winslow.

Everyone received a candle and a copy of the Declaration, in the form of an illustrated “passport,” produced by Amnesty International.

at right: Bonnie McCracken

As we stood in the cold, many of us attempting to hold both a candle and text in gloved hands, a car with a couple of blonde college-age women in it drove by, and the driver leaned out the window and helpfully shouted, “Hey, what the fuck are you doing?!”

That could have been a metaphor for the problem: ignorance and scorn. We knew exactly what we were doing, yet they had no clue. In a way, it’s understandable: at the end of the college semester, if students venture out into the Friday night cold, it is for physical rather than moral pleasures. And what of the rest of the town? In a community that prides itself on its “activism” and can readily generate a crowd with signs and candles for any “cause,” whether epochal or trivial, it was disappointing to see that we could with difficulty muster only about a dozen participants.

the vigil: Amherst Human Rights/Resources Director Eunice Torres, foreground

As we began to read from the Declaration, the sirens of police and fire vehicles, far more loudly, yet much less offensively, also interrupted the event.

The intense dedication of its participants stood in inverse proportion to the size of the gathering. The nominal membership of the Commission is nine, though at the moment only six seats are filled: three of them, notably, by high school students. Human Rights Director Eunice Torres was there representing Town staff, and I was present on behalf of the Select Board.

A few interested residents rounded out the group. Some were just supportive. Others, including Commission member Mohammed Ibrahim Elgadi, were from our Sudanese community, and brought with them a deep commitment to human rights arising from their own suffering. Mr. Ibrahim, who was tortured for his activism, is the founder and chair of Group Against Torture in Sudan (GATS). Sudan was in fact the focus of last year's program. 

An elderly woman from Egypt, wearing a headscarf and speaking in Arabic through a translator, said that she was proud of the changes that her compatriots had accomplished in the past year, and hoped that their example would bring democratic change to the rest of the Africa in the next one. It seemed a fitting way to close.

On Saturday, December 10, the Commission, as is its custom, made a presentation on human rights work to the community, hosted a potluck luncheon, and distributed posters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This year the presentation was devoted to human rights and relief work in Haiti.


Deborah Radway (Director, Amherst Dept. of Human Resources/Human Rights), Judy Brooks

Judy Brooks and Human Rights Commission Chair Reynolds Winslow read from the Preface


As the preceding photos show, holding the vigil on the corner of the Common at the four-way intersection of Town Hall had the advantage of visibility but the disadvantage of an unprepossessing setting and traffic noise that interrupted the reading. Beginning in 2013, the Commission moved the ceremony a few yards to the southeast, beneath the "Merry Maple" tree and closer to Town Hall.


Human Rights Commission Chair Gregory Bascom


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (from the UN)
60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (from the UN)
• Gita Sahgai,”Who wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?50.50 Inclusive Democracy, 9 December 2011 

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