Americans must uphold freedom of conscience for all

Sunday, December 3, 2000

The world had just begun to absorb the unspeakable horrors of the
Holocaust when the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948. At that critical moment in
history, proclaiming the inviolable dignity and inherent rights of every human
being was a welcome cry of hope in a world freshly aware of the human capacity
for evil.

Now, a little more than a half century later, Human Rights Day on Dec.
10 will probably come and go quietly, escaping the notice of most

But according to Amnesty International, it won't be a quiet day for
the scores of Sudanese who are being tortured in Lebanon to force them to drop
their asylum claims.

Nor will the day go by unnoticed by the family of T. Puroshottam, a
human-rights activist in India who had his throat slit recently for daring to
speak out about police torture and extrajudicial executions.

And the day will not be easy for Fatma Tokmak and her small son, Kurds
who were allegedly tortured by Turkish police. According to reports, the police
administered electric shocks to the two-year-old Azat and stubbed out
cigarettes on his hands. Fatma was hung by her arms and sexually abused.

For all people of conscience, Dec. 10 should be a day for condemning
these and thousands of similar violations of fundamental rights that occur each
day throughout the world. Tragically, there remains an enormous gap between the
ideals set forth in the Universal Declaration of 1948 and the living reality
for millions of people whose rights are denied in the year 2000.

But will we pause to listen in the midst of our busy and (for many of
us) prosperous holiday season?

However unpleasant and unsettling it may be to focus on torture and
oppression at this time of year, Americans have a special responsibility to do
so. After all, our very freedom to celebrate Ramadan, Hanukah, or Christmas
— and the freedom not to celebrate any of the above — depends
directly on our national commitment to uphold the inalienable right of freedom
of conscience for every human being.

Moreover, as we learned in World War II, our freedoms can't be
sustained in isolation from the actions of other nations. It's no accident that
much of the 1948 Universal Declaration is modeled on our own Bill of Rights and
reflects the conviction of our Framers that all people are “endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Though our nation often fails to live up to these principles, our
struggle to do so remains a source of inspiration to suffering people

If we do listen to the cries for help from around the world, how can
we turn our outrage into effective action?

One starting point would be to support Amnesty International's current
Campaign Against Torture. By calling international attention to the plight of
people like Fatma Tomak, we are doing our part to uphold the principles
articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.