A Day for Justice

FORTY-TWO years ago this day, in a world still reeling from Aushwitz and Hiroshima, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a ``Universal Declaration of Human Rights.'' The language and concepts of the declaration set forth the ideal of a new world order: ``a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want ....'' This was heady stuff, soon to be chilled by the cold war.

In intervening years, a huge shadow fell between the ideal and the reality. Atrocities, barbarism, and suppression of conscience didn't end. In Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Idi Amin's Uganda, and Mengistu's Ethiopia, millions died. Jews and Christians perished in the Gulag. In countless hamlets and provinces - from Pyongyang to Dhaka, and from Warsaw to Wounded Knee - rights were trampled.

Still, on this International Human Rights day, one sees some gains. The civil rights movement in the United States, begun in the black churches of the South, fundamentally changed the political landscape of the world's oldest democracy. Martin Luther King, the Helsinki accords of the late '70s, and the Polish Solidarity movement were crucial symbols last year in the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the liberation of Eastern Europe, and the end of the cold war. Lubyanka Prison ain't what it used to be. Let freedom ring. ``I have a dream ...''

Yet before ``new world order'' rhetoric piles too high today, facts must be faced. Western assumptions of progress towards a more rational, civilized planet are too easy, and naive. Tribal butchery in a Liberian church last summer is only a warning, as was the slaughter in Tiananmen Square the summer before. The new US ally in the Gulf, Assad of Syria, killed 20,000 in his own city of Hama in 1982. Last week in Guatemala - this hemisphere's worst rights offender - 11 civilians were shot down by the army.

In fact, serious rights-standards and rule of law may now be a minority position on the globe. Underscoring this, a new Human Rights Watch report notes the murder of 31 human-rights monitors last year - people who try to hold their governments accountable. Eight monitors are missing.

In modern democracies, rights are subverted subtly. Norman Cousins, a founding father of the UN and Monitor columnist who passed on this month, told editors last fall that the desensitizing of children to violence, the decline of respect for intellect, the commercialization of values, and government-corporate collusions invisibly rob rights. ``Are we bringing up a generation taught that the pain of others isn't very important?'' he asked.

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