The former ambassador to Bosnia Herzegovina and foreign affairs expert, Douglas McElhaney, was the keynote speaker at last Saturday's 4th annual Human Rights Conference on the University of Tampa. The all day event was held at the Vaughn Center; the campus' student union. Despite a small turn out of roughly 50 people consisting of students, faculty, United Nations Association of Tampa members and a guest speaker from Canada, the presentations and discussions were as weighty as the topic would dictate.
The United Nations Human Rights Declaration functioned as the Rosetta Stone of the conference. Varying articles within the document were applied to topics ranging from the inalienable human right to the access to medical marijuana all the way to the human right of people to migrate to areas (e.g. countries) where their basic needs can better be furnished.
When referring to basic needs, think of concepts like medicine, food, water, the absence of political, cultural, economic violence and persecution which are all directly or indirectly guaranteed in the UN Human Rights Declaration.
Today's International Human Rights document has undergone several evolutionary changes since its adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. This Universal Declaration of Human Rights was officially ratified on 16 December of the following year.
Then in 1966, the General Assembly further adopted two detailed Covenants, which have come to supplement the now robuster International Bill of Human Rights. The last phase of the evolutionary process took place in 1976. In that year the UN General Assembly ratified the Bill which then was buttressed by the adherence to International Law.
Yet, not all countries see human rights as an individual's inherent rights. Rather, in lieu of an individual's human rights some countries uphold a group's rights; which might be ethnic, cultural, societal, familial or racial. This disparate perspective, on the intrinsic validity of human rights, is often at the crux of cultural and political tensions within non-western countries. Differing vantage points on how to implement safeguards to ensure compliance with human rights, is also at the epicenter of conflict between these countries and the West.
Ambassador McElhaney reiterated that these perceptions, laid out by the UN, are not universal.
“Human rights is essentially a western concept...If you look at how we (USA) apply human rights in our foreign policy; it's western.”
And McElhaney, who has been the force behind the St.Petersburg in the World summit held the past two years, then went on to assert that the international covenants, which are in place today are, largely, drafted and framed utilizing western ideology. These treaties, declarations, pacts and resolutions make up, what McElhaney calls, the “international system”. The former ambassador elaborated;
“African countries, Latin America, Asia had very little input, until a few years ago, as to what this international system was about.”
He put forth the example of the war in former Yugoslavia; a place and subject he knows firsthand. This region, throughout modern history, has been rife with cultural and ethnic tension. The Bosnian War of the early 1990's pitted Muslim populations against Christian populations which both shared common cultural traditions.
In demonstrating the intricacies and pitfalls of human rights negotiations within the fragile stability of the region, McElhaney quipped that “...you can lead a horses to sign a document but you can't make them implement it....”
He also referenced current hotbeds of what the West sees as blatant human rights violations like Egypt and Sudan. McElhaney said that even though the West sees an Egyptian dictatorship emerge after the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood (a violation of an individual's human rights over a groups rights), it needs to remain in engaged in Egypt's political future. According to McElhaney, Egypt is the “linchpin of peace in the Middle East.”
During an interview after his keynote speech, McElhaney said this about the Israeli Palestine conundrum that Secretary of State John Kerry suffered following the breakdown of peace negotiations last week;
“...there is less and less the United States can do...to bring peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. They have sunk themselves in to the point that it's going to make it very difficult to carry forth or implement anything that's ever agreed to...for example, towards the West Bank, toward Jerusalem or the Right of Return to Israel.”
The former Ambassador went on to cite ominous historical precedence as maybe the only true catalyst to change.
“...things usually happen after a conflict or after a big blow up. I mean after 9/11, the 1967 War (Israel versus Egypt)...the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Something actually moves. We certainly don't want to have to have another conflict, on the West Bank or somewhere, for people to realize that we have peace now...Maybe not a steady peace; but how can we solidify it.”
In Ambassador McElhaney's closing remarks of his keynote speech he praised President Barack Obama, over other presidential administrations, for his efforts in providing aid and other things which assist in the development of human rights.