Tale of a businessman's rebirth as human rights activist

On the fiftieth anniversary of UN human rights declaration, a growing army of local crusaders gives added force to the movement.

Every working day for the past decade, Martin Wassell has trekked to a small, windowless office here for another 10 hours of relentless phoning, faxing, and letter writing.

A former television ad man in Britain, Mr. Wassell quit that business after several trips to Tibet profoundly changed his life.

Now he's traded business suits for Levis and he drives a vintage-model Toyota, but this committed human rights activist draws immeasurable satisfaction from his long days coordinating protests, candlelight vigils, and other events to spotlight his concerns about China's treatment of Tibet. "Human rights is not a right or left issue, a rich or poor issue, but a spiritual issue affecting everyone," says Wassell.

He is part of a growing army of lone-eagle operatives within the human rights community - individuals working outside the usual venues.

Today, as the human rights community celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), these activists are giving added impetus to a burgeoning global activism.

Using Internet technology to network globally and protest locally, they work alone or within larger groups to coordinate grass-roots activities, from "cyber-events" to sit-ins, to publicize human rights abuses.

Alongside the large human rights groups whose names might more easily roll off the lips of average Americans, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, "smaller organizers are increasingly taking their place in the human rights spotlight," says Philip Harvey, who tracks the groups and is a professor at Rutgers School of Law in New Jersey.

"If you walk into nearly any office in America and ask even educated people what they know about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a very large majority will tell you, 'zip,' " says Jack Healey, director of the Human Rights Action Center in Washington.

Many people remain largely unaware of the continuing abuses that have claimed 150 million lives this century, experts say. This lack of interest is reflected in the activists' cramped offices and tiny budgets. Relying on grants, donations, local fund-raising, and armies of volunteers, the activists often subsist in quiet obscurity.

Human rights enters the world stage

The UDHR - the key document that supports worldwide human rights efforts - was passed without dissent by the United Nations in 1948 after the Nazi Holocaust. Eleanor Roosevelt, the US delegate to the UN in 1945, chaired the UN commission that drafted the UDHR.

Introduced in 1945 and debated for three years, the final resolution gave new international legal status to human rights, "promoting and encouraging respect for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion." The United Nations Charter itself requires UN members to "pledge themselves to take joint and separate action" to achieve that."

The event marked a sea change in world attitudes about human rights, from what had been primarily a domestic concern into a matter of universal conscience - the need to recognize inalienable rights that transcend national borders.

"The UDHR is the basic document underpinning everything human rights groups do, large and small," says William Felice, professor of International Relations at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., who wrote a book on human rights.

Despite their low profile, scores of small human rights groups in the United States and abroad played a significant role in many of the UDHR's successes, experts say. Those victories include helping to sustain the international pressure that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa, the fall of communism and the Berlin wall, the establishment of a mine ban treaty in 1997 by 133 countries, and the decision by Britain's highest court to review laws that prevented the extradition of Chilean general Augusto Pinochet to Spain.

"Many people don't realize that it is the steady vigilance of dozens of these groups and their volunteers" over the course of decades that triggered these events, says Mr. Felice. One key element, he notes, are student-activist groups on US campuses. Without them, "many of these issues would not reach the light of day," he says.

So what drives a human rights activist?

"We are all diminished by cruel and despotic behavior wherever it occurs," says Wassell.

Likewise, Sandra Hunnicutt, a former library archivist in Beverly Hills, Calif., changed careers after a trip to India, which brought her face-to-face with a family whose daughter was threatened by a sexual-slavery ring.

"I simply became so upset that no one seemed to be spearheading anything to fight this situation," says Ms. Hunnicutt, who now tours the US, giving lectures and slideshows on the issue. "I simply refuse to accept a negative situation." She spent $18,000 of her own money to start Captive Daughters, a group seeking to raise awareness of the problem.

The need for vigilance

But observers hasten to add that despite human rights successes, the 50th-anniversary celebrations should be tempered with an acknowledgment that serious problems persist.

In its 1999 World Report, Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization in the US, tops its list of concerns with the repressive governments in Burma, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan. It also highlights abusive warfare in Afghanistan, Algeria, Colombia, Kosovo, and Sudan. And it acknowledges that genocide, "the most universally condemned crime," has been committed in Bosnia and Rwanda.

The movement's critics

Human rights groups face accusations that they interfere with countries' sovereignty. Many Asian governments and some developing nations complain of a Western "bias" in the UDHR, particularly in the way it conceptualizes freedom.

And many countries, including the US, don't like the spotlight thrown on their own abuses. "Nations do feel that they are giving over a bit of their own rights to organize their societies in the way they see fit," says Mr. Harvey. "They feel it's one thing to have some do-gooder telling Nepal, Timor, Indonesia, or South Africa how to run things, but it's another to have them lean on you."

A prime example is a Philadelphia group known as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, a multiracial organization of poor people that urges national groups to protest US welfare reform. "You can talk all night about China and Iraq and others abusing people within their borders," says Joy Butts, the group's national coordinator. "But the US government is sanctioning major human rights abuses right here at home."

As it enters its second 50 years, the human rights community claims it's won a major victory by getting at least a tacit acceptance of its agenda by many governments. More foreign regimes are making respect for human rights an important factor in aid relationships, activists say. human rights bodies have formed in Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

And international financial institutions and multinationals have shown more sensitivity to human rights concerns.

"There now exists a legacy of traditions and norms and the beginnings of means to hold people to account," says Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights in New York.

As a means of extending that legacy, a coalition of more than 100 US groups is focusing on four steps to advance human rights protections: a White House summit on human rights, US ratification of the international women's convention, establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court, and stronger international support of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The best way to ensure human rights is to accelerate the grass-roots model of activism in other countries, says some groups. That means forming local offices in every country of the world.

"If you are a Chinese person thrown unjustly into prison in Peking, and have to rely on some English-speaking organization thousands of miles away, your goose might already be cooked," says Mr. Healey.

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