Nowhere on earth are women equal to men, even 50 years on from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The was the message from six of the world's leading women to delegates at the State of the World Forum in San Francisco last night (October 28).
Mahnaz Afkhami, former Minister of State for Women's Affairs in Iran, Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership, Azar Nafir, visiting scholar at the John Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, Navanethem Pillay, Judge, U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Jacqueline Pitanguy, Professor of Sociology and Political Science, Catholic University, Rio de Janeiro and Loretta Ross, executive director of the National Center for Human Rights Education, discussed the declaration of human rights at 50, as a preface to the future. The U.N. declaration was originally devised at the Fairmont Hotel, the venue for this year's Forum.
The six women brought passion, intelligence and a sense of hopefulness to the debate.
Ms. Afkhami said there were many documents on human rights previous to the declaration, "but they limited the expression of human rights to certain groups, nationalities and other groups. The universal declaration was the first in the entire history of the human race to give rights as individuals regardless of what category to which they belonged. It is the highest expression of our noblest aspirations as individuals."
Ms. Afkhami said there had been setbacks and problems in the world, but this document had been instrumental in helping give shape to a movement that was inclusive of all human beings. However, she said "there are still many people living in abject poverty, and women are still nowhere on Earth equal to men. In places like Afghanistan they are living in complete house-imprisonment and total apartheid. There are daily cases of battery around the world, so there are unfortunate lapses in the document and there's a long way to go."
Judge Pillay, who was the first black woman to be appointed to South Africa's Supreme Court, said humankind was on the brink of a new era in international and universal human rights.
She said things were changing in terms of prosecuting those who masterminded massacres and disappearances, and those who carried the orders out. There had been repeated examples of human rights violations over the 50years since the declaration was signed, and the response of the international community had been marked by the tolerance of impunity, rather than enforcement of the law.
"My own country, South Africa, has established the truth commission to deal with the … violations committed by the past regime. In the United States the legal system has used civil action for human rights violations against political leaders, such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. And over the past five years the United Nations has created two international criminal tribunals, the one for the former Yugoslavia, and another for Rwanda."
The U.N. had also just voted to set up a permanent international criminal court. However, Judge Pillay warned that such a new court could only be effective if all countries co-operated and channeled their political wills into protecting human rights. The effectiveness of such co-operation had been demonstrated when France, Spain and Switzerland requested the extradition of the former Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, leading to his arrest in Britain. "If we can get to a time where there is no safe haven for those who have committed human rights violations, then we will have breathed new life into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
Loretta Ross said there were three serious threats to human rights - structural reforms in industrial countries which removed governments' responsibility to safeguard the basic human rights of the needy; the increasing control of information with news media tightly controlled by fewer and fewer corporations; and "middle-class rage," or the attempt by governments to whip up the middle-class by blaming the problems of society on the underclass.
Ms. Ross said there was hope that some political leaders were taking up the challenge to protect human rights. "To paraphrase Bill Clinton - who after all is my president - and not my husband - the bridge to the 21st century will be built by teaching Americans about their human rights. I see the U.S. as the big domino," she said, indicating that America's enlightenment in the human rights area could ripple through the rest of the world.
Jacqueline Pitanguy took issue with the agenda of this year's State of the World Forum. She argued that this year's discussion of human rights was getting short-shrift, and was too important to be confined to a single 75-minute discussion.
Ms Pitanguy called for a significant expansion of human rights language, to include reproduction, sexuality and health. "Everyone has the right to social security, as well as cultural and economic rights," she said.
Charlotte Bunch said there was a question mark over the issue of universality, and whether the world had actually had a common humanity. She said the challenge was to respect diversity. "How do we build a human rights that doesn't simply reflect one mono-culture, but actually reflects respect for all human beings within diversity, but never defending diversity when it actually is a form of denial of human rights of any individuals?"
Ms. Bunch said women had been at the center of the conflict of universality through fundamentalism, such as religious fundamentalism of the Southern Bapists in the U.S. and in Afghanistan, or the nationalist fundamentalism in Serbia or Rwanda.
She said if universal human rights didn't include women in all parts of the world, "we really have to wonder if we have a common humanity at all."
The theme of the right to imagine and dream dominated the thoughts of Azar Nafisi. Ms. Nafisi compared the case of the writer Salman Rushdie, whose life is under threat after the late Ayatollah of Iran put a price on his head for blasphemy because of his book, The Satanic Verses, to that of cartoon character, Olive Oil, from Popeye. Olive Oil, Ms. Nafisi said, was being edited out of the cartoon in Iran, meaning Popeye and the Captain were arguing over a non-existant's presence.
"This is funny, but if you are living that reality, you'll realize that absurdity is almost as tragic as Salman Rushdie's. What is it that makes a cartoon - something that isn't even real - and what is it that makes a book that was written by a writer thousands of miles away from Iran, so dangerous that a writer or an artist, in order to be free to express himself or herself, has to pay for it with his or her life."
She said it was only through art that the transience of life was made into something immortal. Through works of imagination, one could create a better world and the potential for change. But in order to do that, one had to criticize and subvert the present reality, and that was what made the right to imagine and dream dangerous to some.
Azar Nafisi concluded the session's discussion with a tribute to a group of her female students in Iran, who would gather together and discuss their world, and look at the relationship between fiction and reality, and write their own thoughts about their reality.
She read aloud one of her student's poems. She would not name the author for fear her life would be endangered in Iran.
"I am not invisible
I touch the russet fall of the leaves,
And feel the scent of the last light upon the sky.
The crushed sound of the bygone leaves I hear
The last song of the sparrows deep down the sycamores I see
The breeze taking the lifeless leaves I taste
I am not invisible
The night hears me engulfing my voice
The shadow of the Cyprus tree sees through me
The gray of the clouds cloaks my skin
The vague sound of the cricket bears my breath
The silence of the dark carries my cry
Stretch your hands - I am in the wind
Stretch your hands - I am in the wind
Call me, I am in the echo of the waves
Call me, I am in the echo of the waves
Follow me, I am in the last vanishing notes of the seagull."