Why Independence is the stepping-stone to Human Rights
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. This passage from the Declaration of Independence, written by its principle author, an American Founding Father and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, in 1776, has become, not only inspirational and influential, but the foundation and core of American political legitimacy, American political tradition, and most importantly sovereignty of the people. Furthermore, from this foundation, the United States has secured its position as a true forerunner in the changes of international law and practices, as well as has created a cornerstone of public policy mimicked by the world. In ratifying its potent words, the Declaration would become the rhetoric and centerpiece for future American policies, the influencing agent to future national declarations of independence that would later take place throughout the world, and most importantly the inspiration for people worldwide. This article is a personal expository approach as to why independence is the stepping-stone to human rights. In my objective to be as explicit as possible, I will define my notion within the parameters of the United States and the 21-years independent Ukraine, both countries I have come to very well know and love both personally and professionally.
To begin to understand the evolution of human rights through independence, we must first look at its foundations. There are many theories pertaining to the trace of human rights, but because the protection of fundamental human rights was a foundation stone in the establishment of the United States over 200 years ago, I am encouraged to explain the brief history and circumstances of America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776 as my starting point: This document announced to the world many decisions and fundamental ideas, one of which was extremely revolutionary, the creation of the American nation itself as solitary and united and formed by the unanimous decision of the Thirteen American Colonies. In its words of wills, wants and hopes of the people, the Declaration was and still is a direct object of human rights, impelled by the repeated injuries and usurpations inflicted by the King of Great Britain, King George III. In his hopes to establish a tyrannical authority in North America, King George III interfered with and rejected every foundation of representative government set in place for the good of the people. In his operative, King George III was inept to civility, abusive, and ignorant to the natural rights of the people. With Britain’s stronghold grip on the Colonies, Colonists suffered tremendously; taxes were unforgiving, local government was obscured, corruption prevalent, transparency nonexistent, there was a seemingly everlasting public outcry of economic instability, and endless shockwaves of impunity.
Accordingly, having already invested into a raging two-year war, the American Revolutionary War, which was waged against the Kingdom of Great Britain, the Colonists had had enough of patiently suffering at the hands of the king. Thereupon, American Colonists deemed it necessary to heed for a better government by dissolving its political bands with Great Britain, and exposing the British Empire to the great nations of the world as destructive to the Rights of the People. In its establishment, the protection and declaration of human rights and equal opportunity by the United States within its own territory would go through perilous trials and tribulations to carry forward the good of its people, ultimately predicating an understanding of American freedom and justice that would be immediately mimicked by many great nations and their states, and would sculpt the world forever to come.
Today, although nowhere near perfect, human rights in the United States have come a tremendous way. What was once a country that freely expressed and practiced slavery, racism, sexism, state laws that prohibited alternative cultures to sexual orientation and marriage, that in the past engaged in unethical human experimentations, immoral interrogations, waterboarding and put historical restrictions on the freedoms and equality of its people, has now become a world recognized nation for its structured and legal framework of human rights. Today, human rights in the United States are legally protected by the Constitution of the United States of America and its amendments. Furthermore and according to the annual report Freedom in the World by US based Freedom House, the United States is ranked at the highest possible rating, “Free”, in terms of its political rights and civil liberties ratings. In addition, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2012 issued by Transparency International, a global coalition against corruption, the United States ranked at No. 19 out of 196 world countries. In sum, these few examples are minor, but illustrative grounds vindicating the historically brave choices of America choosing its independence 200 years ago, and how since then, the existence of human rights have been a central and forever developing goal of U.S. and foreign policy in deterring aggression, promoting rule of law, securing peace, preventing humanitarian crises, and combating crime and corruption. In turn, the United States has set itself as an example of the human rights all wish to embody in the world.
Now, without further ado, I will appropriately connect the monumental circumstances and intrinsic philosophies of independence as a stepping stone to human rights, with that of the young and developing country of Ukraine: On August 24, 1991, years after having been an abused state of the vast and powerful Soviet Union, under which the country suffered and endured complete control and occupation headed by the radical Bolsheviks, authoritarian Soviet aggression, genocide by means of famine, mass repressions, hostility and ultimate death, Ukraine finally reestablished its independence. In turn, Ukraine’s parliament proclaimed that the country would no longer follow the laws of the USSR, instead only the laws of the Ukrainian SSR, which by de facto, dissolved the Soviet Union entirely. Although independent, Ukraine’s suffering would not intermit, and the country would plunge helplessly into an eight-year recession causing one of the highest-magnitude economic depressions in Europe.
Nonetheless, and a mere 21 years later, Ukraine would overcome such downturns, becoming a unitary, an important global market, maintaining the second-largest military in Europe, as well as ranking 8th in Europe by the number of visiting tourists. And although it is safe to say Ukraine has undergone immense political and economic transformations since 1991, there are many sectors in which the country lacks important interests, one being the protection of fundamental human rights. From its significant deterioration of the observance of human rights, many modern human rights groups and organizations have emerged over the latter half of the twentieth century, creating an undeniable power in numbers. Among some of the most influential are the Helsinki Human Rights Union and Amnesty International, both of which work boundlessly at amending and ratifying national constitutions throughout the world. In my delving to understand the lack of human rights accountability that undoubtedly exists in Ukraine, I collected touching stories from these two organizations and alliances, both of which are endlessly defending and promoting human rights through active demonstrations in Ukraine.
Established in 1989, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has become one of the most experienced and professional non-governmental organizations involved in the protection of human rights in Europe. Since 1993, the foundation has set up a number of Human Rights Houses and Unions throughout Poland, Western Europe, the Russian Federation, Belarus, Central Asia, Ukraine and others. Amidst its important trainings, seminars and conferences, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights also provides extensive expert consultation in the sphere of human rights and freedoms to individuals, missions and constituents facsimiled on the American Declaration. Some of the foundation’s biggest and hardest work goes into the organization of state institutions, such as parliamentary committees, police operations, the judiciary, prison services, the border guard and public health services.
Amnesty International is a global movement with 50 years of groundbreaking achievements in the evolution and dramatic changes of operating and impacting human rights. The movement is supported by a strong 3 million members and activists in over 150 countries. Their mission is to make a real difference to people’s lives, by supporting human rights on the frontlines. Amnesty International embodies a global way of working and thinking, by organizing campaigns and communications effective in freedom and justice for all.
The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and Amnesty International both clearly understand that no region or country in the world is immune to the damages of unprotected and unpracticed human rights, thus, both foundations often organize public protests in many countries, in hopes of uniting people from all parts of society. And although these organizations and their supporters come from diverse backgrounds, their underlying mission is the same: more accountability in the common moral language, which is that of human rights.
In a recent interview with Andriy Didenko, a journalist and legal expert with the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union specializing in abuse cases, Didenko discussed the course and political agenda, he feels, Ukraine is obligated to fulfill as an independent country seeking protected and practiced human rights, “In the ideal world, everyone would accept to fair justice and have his or her own human rights to use freely and without repercussions. Unfortunately, the extent of opposition I have personally witnessed as a working member of the Helsinki Union in Ukraine is rather unacceptable. Ukraine needs to recognize that optimality is indeed possible, but it cannot be accomplished with the endless unwillingness and opposition many human rights organizations face on a day-to-day basis. Just in the last few years, we’ve seen an approaching unwillingness of the state to see and listen to the problems occurring here, which has signaled a significant deterioration in the human rights that are observed or even practiced in Ukraine overall. Generally speaking, I think this is the strongest opposition to our human rights work, and a prime reason why many people tend to believe their undeniable human rights are, in fact, denied to them and are, in turn, deemed useless weapons.”
Like Didenko mentioned, up until 2010, government opposition has become a new territory of frequent routine, in fact, so much so, that the former vibrant civil society and take-action approach citizens once exemplified in 2004 through 2009, has come down to government autocracy that has restricted environments for citizens, media and civil society institutions. Other recent negative developments have come to head with the erosion and dissatisfaction of government affairs, such as improper investigations, impunity cases, fabricated prosecutions, police abuse and violations, as well as government interference of the rights of vulnerable groups.
When asked where the link lies in independent Ukraine manifesting less democratic trends, Zorian Kis, Campaign Coordinator of Amnesty International explained, “There is certainly not enough trust in the system. Citizens are worrisome of police, selective prosecutions and intrusive processes that are so-called “democratic”. People just don’t believe that there is fairness in tough situations, especially against services that are meant to protect us and provide direct oversight in fair arrests, investigations of crimes and in circumstances that are all too common in daily life. In our reports, we have seen a rise in abuse and unfair detainment of ordinary people, builders, minors, mothers, children, etc., that quite often never report their abuse because of lack of trust in the system. This is unacceptable.”
But according to Tetyana Mazur, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Ukraine, a lack of belief in the system is the driving force that is already mobilizing Ukrainians to achieve groundbreaking results, “We push the government in a number of different ways, all of which include several elements, and our most powerful is that of mobilizing society. We are already an independent country, so people do feel a sense of empowerment because of this, and Amnesty International provides a way for Ukrainians, young and old, to create power in numbers. By putting practical sense into campaigns, petitions and discourse movements, we help push a united peoples in confronting the government where it needs to be confronted, all of which is done to ensure an effective mechanism for this generation and all future generations to come.”
Mazur went on to explain that Amnesty International welcomed a new and revolutionary Criminal Procedure Code in Ukraine on November 20, 2012, which made recognition in voluntary surrender not proof of guilt. The new Criminal Procedure Code became a full-fledged attorney and key player in all criminal proceedings, and has since provided the best guarantees for victims of violations of human rights. Mazur also stated that by de facto, the Ukrainian government will have to establish a State Investigation Bureau, a plan backed by the European Union that will require the proper and unselective investigation of crimes committed by high level officials, judges and law enforcement.
Underlying the verdict impelled by public tumult, corruption, impunity, economic instability, and what else have you, it is very clear how similar the United States is to Ukraine. For two centuries, the United States of America has animated human rights into movements, political discourses, as well as influential activities of non-governmental and governmental organizations, all of which have established a means of public dialogue, concerning everything from peacetime to skepticism, for the global society. In just over two decades, Ukraine, has done exactly that and more, adopting state referendums and citizen initiatives that have conferred treaties and enacted justified legislatures in congress. Moreover, the alternative philosophy of American human rights, first introduced in the written ink and parchment of the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, makes us appreciate its exceptional claims even further in that it was a public proclamation that All Men Are Created Free and Equal- a true and revolutionary significance shared in the dreams and hopes of the human rights supporters and citizens of Ukraine.
In sum, the foundation of human rights by the United States 200 years ago and the endless fight Ukraine holds for its civil societies today, are true and physical examples that the need for human rights are and have been universal throughout much of history. And throughout my research, something else soon became very evident to me, that these stories were a symbolic demonstration in and of themselves, and that people, young and old and around the world are active in and concerned about their world, that the notion of human rights is relevant everywhere, and that making a difference, can indeed, be accomplished. By bringing together these examples, my hope is, they will ignite a flame of opportunity, inspiration, and originality required in the defense and promotion of all human rights universally.
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