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Time for a New “New Deal” on Human Rights

December 2008

Sixty years after the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we at Grassroots International recognize that more often than not the reality has failed the vision put forth in that document.  Our commitment to defending land, water, and food as the most basic of human rights is reflected throughout the 30-article treaty.  Globally, people in all corners of the world currently experience a quadruple crisis that includes food, finance, energy, and the environment.  From Latin America to the Middle East, our partners and allies are facing serious threats to their lives and livelihoods.  Policies and actions of governments and corporations represent the grave violations of the core principles of the treaty.

The expansion of new agro-fuels plantations and other mega-projects in Latin America are forcing rural families off their land plots, rendering them incapable of growing food.  Palm oil, sugar cane plantations and dams occupy the traditional territories of indigenous people and afro-descendent communities.  Without legal land documents, rural families are losing their lands that have been used for generations to grow food to feed themselves and their communities.  The boom of agro-fuels and other “green” energy mega-projects in Latin American countries are impacting food production and communities that receive little or no benefits of the energy produced by their land and labor.  Disproportionately high prices for privatized public utilities are taking their toll on the household economy and families’ ability to purchase basic needs such as food.

Latin American social movements and community organizations opposed to threatening development policies are violently repressed.  Organizers face mounting persecution and harassment by police and local elites.  Often political and psychological repression against social movements reaches the point of physical violence and assassinations.  Governments often neglect the death threats and homicides against the poor.  The lack of resources and government attention to those cases jeopardizes a due process.  In the last 10 years in Brazil, only one out of seven landowners accused of conspiring and involvement in a homicide was sent to jail.  Impunity breeds impunity.

In the West Bank the pressure on the Palestinian people swells.  The Israeli government’s separation barrier has choked the West Bank, dividing the Palestinians’ most important piece of land into three disconnected cantons.  An unequal distribution of water is drying up Palestinian agricultural land and damaging health.  The population of Israeli settlers in the West Bank is at an all-time high and continues to grow while numerous Palestinians living in and around Jerusalem have been forced to leave their lands and homes.  In the Jordan Valley, Israeli agribusiness threatens the future of local Palestinian farms and has pushed out many Bedouin.

Reporting on Gaza for years now continually claims that the situation is at an “all time low” and describes human rights violations there with words such as “skyrocketing” and “unprecedented.”  Each time these words are spoken they ring true because Gaza continues to redefine what it means to hit rock bottom.  In addition to violations against the rights to land, water, and food in Gaza, the absence of the right to the freedom of movement adds insult to injury for a people who have suffered immensely.  Recently, a top appointee to the UN Human Rights Council encouraged the international community to pursue an “urgent effort” to “protect a civilian population being collectively punished by policies that amount to a crime against humanity.”  For both sides in one of our world’s most difficult conflicts, peace will not hold without justice.

As we move forward in this difficult time, the relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is unprecedented.  At this time of crises and transitions we have a chance to fundamentally change what has been a tainted past and progress toward a more just and sustainable future. Sometimes, when all other options have been exhausted, the only thing left is to do is the right thing.  This was probably on Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues’ minds in the wake of the WWII the day that 48 countries voted to adopt their historic document.  “We stand today at the threshold of a great event,” she said, “This Declaration may well become the international Magna Carta of all men [sic] everywhere,” making an unyielding commitment to recognize human rights.  Now is our time to implement them.


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