Friday, September 01, 2006

Village of Widows

Although he was a life-long pacifist and supporter of human rights causes, Albert Einstein will ironically be remembered also as the man who convinced US president Franklin Roosevelt to begin the Manhattan Project. The Anglo-American atomic weapons effort took place during World War II. It led to the use of nuclear bombs in anger, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it opened the Pandora’s box of atomic energy.

In a now-famous letter, Einstein suggested that nuclear chain reactions in large masses of uranium could release “vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements.” And, he speculated, “extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.” While America had only poor ores of uranium, Einstein noted, “there is some good ore in Canada.” Therein lies a tragic story.

At the end of 1998, a Canadian Indian named Cindy Gilday described that tragedy to a United Nations conference on Human Rights. She spoke on a panel considering whether the environment, the economy and human rights were “cross currents or parallel streams.”

Amoco had sponsored Ms. Gilday’s presentation at the conference, held in Edmonton, Canada to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The program brought together many of the world’s foremost human rights activists. One speaker after another described the global struggle for human rights. (Many of the speakers have themselves been jailed for having had the impertinence to suggest, for example, that their national governments endorse democracy.) They argued forcefully that human rights are universal, and do not conflict with cultural or religious values.

Ms. Gilday’s presentation spoke to the experience of one band of Indians during the Second World War. Those Indians lived a traditional nomadic existence, very few spoke much English, and they knew almost nothing about the war. As it happened, however, their traditional territory was near the uranium mine being developed for the Manhattan Project.

The ore came from a rich deposit of uranium and radium along the shores of Great Bear Lake, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. During the long days of summer, a wartime mining company hired local Indian men to carry 40-kilogram burlap bags of ore from the mine to the Mackenzie River. They carried those loads for long hours, for months on end. When the bags ripped apart, they shifted the spilled ore off the trail, but took the contaminated bags to their temporary village. There, the burlap found many uses.

Years later, the ore-carriers began dying of cancer, and the community now known as Deline became, in Ms. Gilday’s words, “a village of widows.” Eventually, the Aboriginal people became aware of the connection between radioactivity and cancer. They also came to understand that they had unwittingly helped contaminate their remote northern homeland with radioactive waste.

According to Ms. Gilday, the families of the men who served as ore-carriers during the war have wounds that are yet to be healed. “Like most Native Americans, their culture, spirit and their very beings are linked intimately with the well-being of mother earth. This has been compromised by uranium mining contamination....If their environment is compromised, their lives are compromised.” She argues that their wartime experience involved a breach of human rights, which no government has ever attempted to redress.

The contrarian could suggest that everyone who dealt with radioactive elements in the early years faced unknown risks. After all, radiography pioneer Marie Curie herself died of cancer.

But whichever side of this argument you take, Ms. Gilday’s story illustrates three powerful trends in modern society. The dynamic relations among public health, safety and the environment comprise a single issue. Another is that many of the world’s indigenous peoples have learned to mobilize public opinion in their effort to reclaim traditional landsand livelihoods. The third is that moral claims based on human rights have economic and political force. Each has powerful implications for globally organized business.

When the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, Soviet representative Andrei Vishinsky dismissed it as just a “collection of pious phrases.” Sadly, for the first two decades of its existence, Vishinsky’s assessment seemed to be accurate. But the declaration has been gathering momentum since the 1970s.

Today, western democracies expect their leaders to raise human rights issues when they visit such countries as China. Large corporations that buy from Third World sweatshops or operate within countries that are the worst abusers of their citizens frequently find themselves the targets of boycotts and picket lines. And countries that systematically violate human rights often find the world’s economic powers imposing embargoes and economic sanctions upon them.

No one understands this better than South Africa’s Anglican archbishop emeritus, Desmund Tutu. As a critic of the former South African system of Apartheid, Mr. Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize. His moral influence led to intense international economic and diplomatic pressure, which eventually led to abandonment of that system of institutional racism. This was one of the great recent victories for the human rights movement.

The keynote speaker at the UN’s human rights conference, the charismatic archbishop characterized South Africa’s victory over Apartheid as a “spectacular victory over the forces of evil and wickedness.” In his introduction to a wide-ranging address on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, which he had led, this tiny little man added a small but enormously significant comment – with enormous humility, and to thunderous applause. “Our victory is your victory,” Mr. Tutu said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you for your support.”

After centuries of human rights abuses, Archbishop Tutu said, “We in South Africa are a wounded people, in need of reconciliation. By enabling this reconciliation to occur, perhaps God is setting up South Africa as a beacon to the world.” He chuckled about “the perverse sense of humour” of the Divine, which could make a troubled country like South Africa a beacon of hope for such countries as Bosnia, Rwanda and Serbia.

The movement that Mr. Tutu so articulately represents has gained great strength in recent decades. Why?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a group of related international agreements, including the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949, have created a body of thought respecting human rights, war crimes and humanitarian law. International bodies are giving this body of law some teeth. And publicity promoted by human rights groups is combining with TV screens full of graphic scenes of humanitarian disasters to increase public concern. Victims are no longer seen as someone else’s problem.

There is also the question of the moral high ground.
A very large percentage of the world’s human rights activists are driven by a sense of higher purpose. Albert Einstein, a Jew, famously remarked that “God does not play dice with the universe.” Cindy Gilday talked about the “culture, spirit and very beings” of American Indians as being “intimately linked with the well-being of mother earth.” And Archbishop Tutu’s profession speaks for itself.

While spiritual values are no doubt one important value behind the human rights movement, “the struggle for democracy” is another. In a notable book by that name published a decade ago, Canadian authors Patrick Watson and Benjamin Barber put the point concisely. “We found that to tell the story of democracy is also to explore the fundamental human urge towards self-mastery and liberation: the inclination to speak openly, communicate freely, pray according to one’s beliefs, dance to one’s own tune, think as one pleases – but to do so in the company of other men and women in a spirit of cooperation.”

Many forces are guiding the human rights movement. The expansion of democracy is one. The human spirit is certainly another. A sense of the Divine, perhaps, is a third. And a growing body of international law underlies all three. Whatever the causes of this remarkable movement, everyone, everywhere, is a beneficiary.
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