Forest Whitaker: Human rights and the challenge of peace in a changing world

Forest Whitaker: Human rights and the challenge of peace in a changing world
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“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Those words were chosen seventy years ago to open the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These words were novel then — and remain so today against a backdrop of contemporary global challenges and social transformations which include the growth of violent extremism and new forms of conflict and discrimination; the adverse effects of new technologies; climate change and threats to the environment; rising global migration and exclusionary political movements; extreme poverty and persistent inequalities.

Three years after World War II ended, the drafters of the Declaration had their minds on the horrors of the Holocaust, the 80 million casualties occasioned by the conflict, a majority of them civilians, and the 50 million refugees displaced by combat and ethnic cleansing. How could these atrocities be prevented from ever being repeated?


Their realization was that conflicts had their ultimate source in the very manner we, human beings, treat each other at the most individual level. Human rights are not an abstraction — they command our indignation in the face of minute events that arise often in our daily environments: someone arrested for his color; a young woman forced into marriage or harassed on the street; a person marginalized because of her gender, religion or ethnicity. Behind the human rights is a fundamental, vital, right to peace — within and between nations.

Some might say that the Declaration lacks relevance since discriminations and conflicts still exist. But the magnitude of the challenge cannot trump the ideal. Conflict has changed, indeed, only to become more diffuse, fragmented, and intricate — not less dreadful. Also, our understanding of peace has evolved.

Peace is not only the absence of conflict. It is entrenched in security and socioeconomic development and also requires positive, dynamic participatory processes that foster dialogue and conflict resolution in a spirit of mutual understanding.

Two billion people live in countries affected by fragility, conflict, and violence, according to the World Bank. The United Nations report that 68.5 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. Seventy-five million children aged 3 to 18 live in countries facing war and violence and are deprived of their right to education.

The number of hungry people in the world is rising, for the first time in more than a decade, going up to 815 million in 2016. A majority of these are women and girls. The Declaration was intended for an imperfect world. A world where conflict occurs, where violence occurs, and where difficult decisions must be taken all the time.

The Declaration is not a magic wand to end all conflict at once. It is up to us to come up with humane solutions to the new challenges that constantly arise in our globalizing world. One can think of the environment and climate change in particular, which are human rights concerns if only because “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Human rights are a cornerstone, for instance, in the Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change that UNESCO proclaimed in November 2017.

Information and communication technology, including social media, big data and artificial intelligence also raise questions that are absolutely unprecedented; yet, it remains absolutely true that, despite the immense power of technology, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation.

The Declaration bears not just on specific rights, but also on the duties we have towards each other as humans irrespective of nationality, gender, national or ethnic identity. Human Rights are a collective responsibility, a responsibility that exceeds the legal obligations of governments.

They are, in truth, a call for our leaders, to embrace the positive role of society in the face of our emerging challenges, for which there are no off-the-shelf solutions. Peace has traditionally been a nearly-exclusive responsibility for politicians, soldiers and diplomats: 70 years into its adoption, the time may have come to seriously consider outsourcing to citizens the responsibility to ensure “general welfare in a democratic society.”

Seventy years after its adoption, we cannot ignore, however, that the Declaration and its goal to free humanity “from fear and want” is still treated with hostility or indifference by many. This should not be surprising for a revolution so recent in the history of humanity. A revolution that we must continue.

Education is, in my view, key to ensure that individuals can both claim their personal rights and assume their mutual duties: from the earliest age, schools and educational institutions at large should resolutely teach human rights, peace and conflict resolution, inviting all to act upon their duty to foster “general welfare in a democratic society.”

Forest Whitaker is an actor and social activist. He is the CEO of the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI) and the UNESCO special envoy for Peace and Reconciliation. Whitaker is also an advocate of the United Nations for the Sustainable Development Goals.