The power of human rights in an uncertain world
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“To deny people their Human Rights is to challenge their very humanity.” – Nelson Mandela

While the UK rocks with grief at the horrific events that shook the Manchester Arena on May 22, 2017, the whole world bows its head and unites in despair. This monstrous act of terrorism claimed the lives of 22 innocent youths and wounded 59 more, sending a seismic wave of heartache, anger and confusion across a frantic, damaged Earth.

And yet, even before the dust settled, alarming reports of more attacks emerged, this time from across the world in Southeast Asia: Martial law was declared in the Philippine province of Mindanao as Maute militants battled security forces. Barely a day later, a suicide bombing in neighbouring Indonesia killed three police officers.

As we reel in anticipation of the events we fear are yet to come, we also stay trembling in the wake of recent tragedies that struck the likes of Stockholm, as well as London’s Westminster Bridge, Berlin, Nice, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, and the list goes on…

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan once said that terrorism is a “global threat to democracy, the rule of law, human rights and stability, and therefore requires a global response”; a statement that resounds and couldn’t ring more true today, given the current social climate.

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Frighteningly, as people desperately look to place blame for these recent senseless acts of violence, crimes continue to be committed and our rights and freedoms continue to be trampled on.

In such a period of global uncertainty, the world would do well to remember this: that respect for the rights and liberties of others is the responsibility of all, and must remain front and centre in our pursuit for peace.

“Human rights are standards that allow all people to live with dignity, freedom, equality, justice, and peace,” writes The Advocates for Human Rights. “…They are guaranteed to everyone without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. [They] are essential to the full development of individuals and communities.

“Human rights reflect the minimum standards necessary for people to live with dignity,” the organisation adds. “…by guaranteeing life, liberty, equality, and security, human rights protect people against abuse by those who are more powerful.”

The contemporary age of human rights extends back to the fight for the abolition of slavery, leading all the way up to the barbaric genocides that stem from World War II. So shocking were these atrocities, global leaders finally realised any former efforts to shelter the rights of the individual from government violations had been meagre and incompetent.

As such, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was officially established, standing as the first global document that promised to protect all of humankind.

But while this and many other established international conventions declare it the primary responsibility of our governments to uphold the principles of our human rights, there are still so many countries failing to do just this.

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“Every day, headlines from around the world only strengthen the case for the principled, balanced, and proactive leadership of the Human Rights Council,” said Antony J. Blinken, former US Deputy Secretary of State.

“In Ukraine, South Sudan, Syria, North Korea, and in so many other places, despicable violations of human rights occur with impunity,” he adds. “A growing number of countries are laying siege to civil society, while unprecedented numbers of refugees mean more and more people – especially women and children – are vulnerable to predation, trafficking, and abuse. And in ways big and small, violent extremism has left its tragic mark in every corner of the globe,” he explained.

But as the UDHR stated way back in 1948, being a primary governmental responsibility does not make it whole, with the original treaty stating that:

“Every individual and every organ of society…shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”

It is our collective responsibility to preserve our human rights, with the next generation of specialised and experienced experts leading us to the light at the end of these turbulent times. With this in mind, institutions like the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, are heavily investing in those with a passion for the field.

The University’s Faculty of Law is due to launch a brand-new, innovative, interdisciplinary Master programme dedicated to the study of human rights, calling for an academic approach that both accommodates and integrates the many intellectual spaces in which our rights are being challenged within the wider world.

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Applicants must be in possession of an Honours degree or equivalent qualification, and have achieved at least 65 percent in their studies overall. Once they’ve gained admission, students will delve into the theoretical foundations of our human rights, as well as analysing their contemporary critiques. From here, students will explore the human rights systems that span around the globe, uncovering the diverse Human Rights perspectives that fall in every region.

The programme is constructed in a way that makes it accessible to students coming from multiple disciplines. After acquiring a general orientation in the theoretical foundations of human rights and contemporary human rights critiques, students then delve into global human rights systems and crucial interdisciplinary perspectives on human rights, before selecting a number of elective courses that best suit their needs.

The latter includes human rights in domestic and international law; human rights and education; human rights and politics; environmental management and human rights; health and human rights; religion and human rights; human rights and development; and gender and human rights

In light of the harrowing events that have stunned the Earth in recent months and years, we must not lose hope or cower in fear. Instead, we must use the power of education and our knowledge of human rights – to which we are all constitutionally and inexorably owed – to defend what we know is right and protect those less able than ourselves.

With the help of institutions like the University of the Free State, we will achieve great things and pave the way to a better life. In the words of one of the greatest human rights activists the world has ever seen: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

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