Every day of the year seems to be dedicated to the awareness of an issue, even an International Day of the Toilet! Which is not as ridiculous as it sounds given that billions of people do not have a toilet and are forced to defecate in the open. 10 December (yesterday in my hemisphere) was International Human Rights Day, with this year’s slogan being “Human Rights 365”, signifying that every day should be Human Rights Day. United Nations Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon, is quoted as saying “I call on states to honour their obligation to protect human rights every day of the year. I call on people to hold their governments to account”. Which is easier said than done if you come from a country where any deviation, even peaceful protest, can lead to a threat on your life, such as the police brutality reported by Cambodian media on a daily basis. Even worse, the brutality people face in other parts of the world which is not even reported, for example the story of any one of the world’s 30 million slaves who suffer without any real publicity to their existence.
In 1948, following the end of World War II, after the large scale and heinous crimes against humanity which occurred through Europe, the United Nations held a General Assembly in Paris on 10 December. At this Assembly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted and the annual custom of International Human Rights Day began.
A step in the right direction, yet human rights continue to be violated across the globe on a continual basis as governments and groups are motivated by control, greed and violence. In my opinion, we are all a part of this global picture, particularly the violation of human rights via economic oppression. The widespread yet invalid belief in the wealthy world, that poor nations only have themselves to blame masks a reality which is far more complicated and convoluted, and no matter what people in places such as Cambodia do, they will remain poor.
As I write this blog I am chatting online with a colleague in Cambodia. She has the same qualifications as me, only hers were obtained at great financial sacrifice to her family who put her through university in order to improve their quality of life. Once she was qualified and working, she met a man and got married. Their child was born as I began my year living in Cambodia and she appeared to be incredibly happy and stable. Until the baby, at around 3 months, was identified as having Cerebral Palsy. Around the same time her husband lost his job. Their expenses for medical assessments and attention increased at the same time as their income almost halved. With no reserve (no medical insurance exists in Cambodia, every clinic or hospital visit costs money, her younger siblings are all still studying but the family income has dwindled which threatens their continued studies), things basically fell apart.
Her father was then diagnosed with lung cancer and with no means to afford pain relief (let alone any other therapy), died a painful but thankfully reasonably quick death. Living three hours from her parents, her baby had been in their care. Upon her father’s diagnosis the baby had to be sent to her husband’s parents, who live an eight hour journey away. Now the baby, who once saw his mother each weekend and who relies on expensive formula milk because he is not with her, has not seen either of his parents for a number of months. Grandparents looking after babies and children is an extremely common, in fact normal, phenomenon. His mother now supports her own widowed mother, siblings trying to maintain their studies, and a disabled child. Her husband was unemployed for many months but finally found work and lives in another part of the country for his job. Her own job with Medecins sans Frontieres is coming to an end as the project will close next year. With very limited job opportunities throughout Cambodia it appears she will also now face the threat of unemployment.
These are all fairly standard stories for Cambodian people – once something goes wrong, there is no back-up system and things can very easily nosedive. People either sink or swim. Many sink, succumbing to malnutrition and then disease and death. We can all offer a little help, eg build a poor family a toilet, sponsor a child in Africa, send money to a charitable cause. But no help from the “donor fatigued” most privileged 5% of the world’s population, can ever make the difference that is needed. This ignores the constant stress that villagers and family members live with as they struggle to assist others while dealing with their own destitution. The only real difference has to come from an overhaul of global economic systems, giving poor nations opportunities to improve their own living standards. But while rich governments and corporations continue to take far more out of these nations, than their individual citizens can possibly give back, this will never happen.
My colleague’s situation is just one example of many I know of, which supports my absolute agreement with a quote by Pope Francis from an article in The Guardian last year. Despite growing up in the Catholic Church, I no longer consider myself Catholic and I don’t support all of Pope Francis’ views, but on this I am happy to quote him: “Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities”. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/13/jorge-mario-bergoglio-pope-poverty).
We are all a part of these global economic structures and as such we are all partly responsible for changing them. Those of us from countries where challenging the status quo is a safe activity, should follow Ban-Ki Moon’s advice and challenge our governments on those policies which adversely affect poor nations while protecting wealthy corporations. Only when these economic structures are reversed to bring some favour to our brothers and sisters in the poor world, will oppressive regimes, terrorist organisations and corrupt systems stop thriving. And only when these organisations and systems stop thriving, will we all have the security that we want. In other words, we should do it for ourselves and the future of our own children.
If this blog post depressed you, take a look at some positive news at this 13 minute presentation by Bono from U2.