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10 December 1998 Edition

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On 50th anniversary, dismay at Human Rights violations

By Mary Maguire

As the drums beat on Thursday for anniversary of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations (UN) Declaration on Human Rights, one couldn't help taking a step back... As speeches unfolded and dinners were held throughout the western capitals, the hypocrisy was blatant. No, the Human rights 50th anniversary is not an ordinary birthday. Nor was it exactly the merriest one either. It was a blunt reminder that one of the most ambitious documents is also the world's most violated one.

More likely, the 50th was a reminder of what is still left to be done.

Human Rights watchdog agencies know it better than anyone. Rather than standing up where we expect her most, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson seems to be on a profile-highering career mission. The sweet and sour game of complimenting states for their behaviour and using the progress as a smokes-screen seems to be her favourite occupation. The iron-fisted heads of state continue to grin in delight, knowing that Mary Robinson is not using half the tools in her possession to attempt change.

She recently stated that ``institutionally, much has been achieved''. That may be the problem. It is not ``institutionally'' that those in Palestine, Algeria, Kosovo or Afghanistan among so many others, need help. It is through action and change, words that seems to never take their full meaning in UN politically correct talking shops. Although the organisation's implementing tools are limited, it is maybe time for Mary Robinson to realise that in her capacity of UN High Commissioner, her mission is not only to raise the issue of Human Rights, but also to stand-up amid criticism and unpopularity and voice the true concerns of millions.

It is also becoming more alarming that government delegation officials at the UN seem to brush aside with more facility than ever the most damning reports of abuse. Today, half the governments across the world are found guilty of torture. After the vicious fall of Yugoslavia and the bloodshed in Rwanda, one lesson is being learnt: crimes against humanity can be waged as their perpetrators will never be brought to justice.

Kosovo might be the most damning proof of this. A billion and a half adults and slave-children earn less than a dollar a day. The same numbers do not have access to drinking or let alone clean water. A vote is still not a right in many so-called democracies and civil rights, such as the right to equality, justice and self-determination are denied.

As arbitrary killings are common and uninvestigated in South America, African or Asian countries, in Europe, asylum-seekers are commonly treated as criminals. Where capitals should seek to protect the rights of individuals, they choose to vote the most draconian legislation, making them totally immune to persecution or sanctions.

Human rights have been described as universal and indivisible. The issue is not political. And yet today, entire populations such as in Somalia or Algeria are the victims of political decisions and government unaccountancy. As civilians are often voice-less, their plight is never widely known. In the fight for self-determination and freedom, such as in Kosovo, the Basque country, Palestine, Nigeria, China or central America or Ireland, the first behind bars to be tortured are political activists and rebels defying the governments in place. Political prisoner status has rarely been recognised.

Apartheid in South Africa and segregation in America are still ongoing. Ecological concerns, touching every single right of a person including the one to life, are rarely mentioned.

In the face of these abuses, it might be too easy to attempt to sober the festive craic surrounding the Human Rights declaration anniversary. But as millions are spent on celebrations, tuxedo dinners and commemorative gadgets this year, the alarm has to be activated. Fifty years on, the situation in the world reflects more abuses than respect. The United Nations is not the guardian angel it pretends to be. The issue is political. Until there is a true commitment to change and justice as well as mechanisms to enforce greater respect, the issue will stay unadressed.

And it may take another 50 years for the blindfold to be lifted.

Black activist to be executed in US

On Thursday 29.October, the US Supreme court rejected Mumia Abu-Jamal's appeal. The magistrate that ruled against Mumia's appeal was the District Attorney who organised his prosecution at the original trial in 1981.

Under US new legislation, a date for Mumia's execution should be issued before 90 days. A worldwide campaign is being organised to stop his legal lynching.

Abu-Jamal has spent 17 years in death row and this is the second time he is facing execution. In 1995, a stay of execution was granted due to international support for Mumia. Since then, an International Tribunal has proclaimed the need for a new trial for Mumia and its conclusions were presented to the European Parliament. But all pleas have been ignored by a system that has decided to victimise Mumia because of his involvement with the Black Panthers and his constant denunciation of the racist policies of Philadelphia Police Department. He aroused the enmity of the authorities.

In December 1981, Mumia was working as a cab driver when he spotted his brother being beaten by the police. As he was running towards them, he was shot in the stomach. During the incident, policeman Daniel Faulkner was shot and killed. Witnesses described the killer as a short fat man with an afro haircut. Mumia is tall, thin and has very distinctive dreadlocks. He has always denied killing the officer.

During his trial Mumia was denied the lawyer of his choice. Out of 125 witnesses interviewed by the police, just three were produced for the trial. All of them were up on other charges and they contradicted each other. The prosecution objected to eleven potential jury members who were black. The end result was just two black people on the jury in a city that is 40% black.

Police admitted beating Mumia while in custody. The bullet that killed Faulkner was a .44 whereas Mumia's gun was a .38 which means that the bullet could not have come from his gun. Despite this, he was convicted. Judge Albert Sabo, who has sentenced more people than any other serving judge to death, sentenced him to be executed.

Documents released under the US Freedom of Information Act demonstrate that from the age of 15 Mumia was targeted by the FBI as a member of the Black Panthers political movement. In the 70s he turned to journalism. He was elected Chairperson of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association of Black Journalists. He became known as ``the voice of the voiceless''. Now that his appeal case has been turned down, Mumia just relies on international support to avoid execution and regain his liberty.

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