While many people around the world celebrated the 60th anniversary last Wednesday of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Botswana took the occasion to announce repressive measures against the G/wi. That country apparently did not notice the tragic paradox.
Last Thursday morning, December 11, Google News provided links to 4,056 stories and articles issued over the previous few days in the world’s press about celebrations of the landmark human rights document. Many news accounts concentrated on a variety of human rights abuses, though the case of the San peoples of the Kalahari received scant attention.
The December 10 New York Times, for instance, focused its 60th anniversary article on the human rights situation in China and the way that country celebrated the occasion. Evidently the Chinese media spent the day filled with self congratulations about China’s progress in promoting the rights of individuals and free speech.
The Times article mentions a story that appeared in the paper China Daily on Wednesday, which lauded three decades of progressive new laws that promote rights and freedoms. Wang Chen, Minister of the State Council Information Office, noted in the article that his country has 229 laws and 600 administrative decrees that protect human rights. He wrote, as the New York Times reported it, that “so long as we unswervingly implement the constitutional principle of respecting and protecting human rights, constantly improve democracy and the rule of law, our society will become more harmonious and people will live a still better life.”
The Times reported that also on Wednesday, 40 people were seen protesting near the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. The protesters evidently made the mistake of demonstrating for about 30 minutes against government corruption and in favor of free elections. Then the Chinese police whisked them away.
Perhaps the most significant celebration of the 60th anniversary on Wednesday occurred in Paris, where the declaration was signed at the Palais de Chaillot on December 10, 1948. The Declaration, based in part on the French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 and on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was adopted that year by 58 member states of the United Nations. The non-binding text has inspired declarations of human rights in the laws and constitutions of at least 90 countries.
A ninety-year old holocaust survivor, Stephane Hessel, spoke at the Paris celebration, and read the preamble to the Declaration before an audience of officials and human rights activists. Hessel, a diplomat who participated in drafting the 1948 Declaration, told AFP that its principles, such as Article 1 declaring that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” are still highly relevant today.
Hessel was optimistic in his assessment of the human rights situation around the world. Mentioning the election of Barack Obama as the first Black to hold the office of U.S. President, he said that “pessimists say things are getting worse and worse, that the world is a terrible place, but there has never been so much progress in 60 years.” He pointed out that the world has gotten rid of apartheid, established an International Criminal Court, and abolished the former Soviet Union and its infamous gulags.
Other world notables also marked the occasion. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was not able to attend the celebrations in Paris, but he sent a message to the gathering conveying his hope “that we will act on our collective responsibility to uphold the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration.” U.S. President Elect Barack Obama issued a statement of commemoration too, though it focused primarily on his own country’s stance in favor of human rights.
The government of Botswana marked the occasion last Wednesday in its own fashion—by announcing that it had approved the Environmental Impact Assessment of Gem Diamonds to begin a controversial diamond mine in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. One of the government’s conditions was that the company, which would have to bore wells for water, would not be allowed to share any of that water with the San people who live in the reserve. It did, however, reserve the right to use excess water from company bore holes to benefit wildlife. Commemorate human rights by destroying a human society.
The G/wi, one of the San societies of the Kalahari, won a landmark law suit against the Botswana government in late 2006, which compelled it to allow them to return to their homes, but while the government has been forced to allow them to move back, it has forbade them to use the water from a pre-existing water hole.
Stephen Corry, the Director of Survival International, remarked about the announcement from Botswana that it is “absolutely scandalous that the Botswana government is insisting that Gem Diamonds does not provide the Bushmen with water. The government is clearly determined to go to any lengths to keep the Bushmen off their land.”
A couple of the four thousand news stories around the world, such as one from India, briefly mentioned the persecutions of the indigenous San peoples of the Kalahari in their stories about the global tragedy of human rights abuses. None seemed to notice that the Botswana government had its own sense of irony in the timing of its most recent announcement.