Africa: 'Elders' Condemn Human Rights Abuses

11 December 2007

Cape Town — Archbishop Desmond Tutu has joined leading international figures in appealing to the global community to fight human rights abuses in countries including Sudan, Zimbabwe and Chad.

The call was made in Cape Town on Monday at the launch of a new human rights campaign, timed to commemorate International Human Rights Day. Tutu also singled out Burma in Asia for special mention.

Decrying abuses in Sudan's Darfur region, Tutu said "there are few more awful places I have seen than the situation in Darfur. Our hope is that we can help keep Darfur in the spotlight and spur governments to act now to bring peace to the region."

Tutu was accompanied at the launch by Irish president and onetime UN Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and Mozambique's former education minister, now global rights campaigner Graça Machel.

All three are members of a group called The Elders, formed earlier this year to provide leadership for addressing global problems through peaceful means.

Also present was Amnesty International's secretary general, Irene Khan, who added her voice to Tutu's on Darfur.

"World leaders wring their hands, and yet are unable to ensure that there are a few helicopters on the ground that the UN and African Union peacekeeping troops can use to protect the people," she said, apparently alluding to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's repeated but unanswered appeals for transport for Darfur peacekeepers.

The group also called for specific attention to the rights of women and children. It was these groups, Machel emphasised, which continued to be most affected by human rights abuses worldwide.

"Across the globe, human rights abuses have the face of a woman, have the face of a child," Machel said. "When we look at education, it is the girl child who loses out; when we look at preventable diseases...those who bear the brunt are women and children."

Khan added: "Very few... are aware that violence against women causes more casualties than the wars in the world today."

The new "Every Human Has Rights" campaign focuses on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted 60 years ago. The campaign encourages individuals not only to take personal responsibility for upholding the human rights set out in the declaration, but to put pressure on their governments and leaders to do the same.

"What we're really keen to do," explained Robinson, "is to ensure that the Universal Declaration... [is] personal….that the statement is as meaningful and important today as it was the day it was adopted."

"We must all feel that we can speak out and prevent abuses and protect the freedom and rights of others," she added.

The campaign aims to achieve these goals through working with partners in the NGO, civil society and business spheres to raise awareness around human rights, getting people to pledge their support for the Universal Declaration with an eventual goal of one billion signatures. It also aims to provide an online platform for people to tell their own human rights stories.

"The enemy of human rights is silence," said Machel. "For this campaign to succeed we need everyone to use every means at their disposal, including the Internet, to tell their stories."

"We would like to feel," she continued, "the pulse of the world during the next year - from the most remote areas of our globe, from those who believe they are forgotten - to come forward and be part of this large movement of people who speak out to protect their rights, to advance their rights, and to speak out against abuses."

On Africa's inability to address effectively human rights crises – particularly those faced by Zimbabwe and Sudan, whose governments have both been accused of serious and widespread human rights violations - Machel said African leaders are bound by systems which "maybe need to be adjusted".

While African leaders were taking initiatives to try to address these problems, she said, "The only instrument they [African leaders] have is to sit down and talk... but where [persuasion] doesn't work, what do you do?

"We should be able to do something else; but we are bound with the systems which we have and we just have to keep on talking. There's no other way – until they listen, until they take responsibility."

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