Should freedom from suicide terror be a human right?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 10, 2008

This week the United Nations is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This foundational document, signed on Dec. 10, 1948, sets forth principles and standards of basic rights that all human beings should be able to take just for granted – but far too often cannot.

Cochrane-based development-learning experts Michael and Judie Bopp described the gap between text and practice in their 2006 paper, “A Developmental Approach to Human Rights”:

“While human rights treaties have historically enjoyed a large measure of success at the level of international agreements, national ratification and, in some cases, codification in legislation, there has been much less success in moving these treaties from paper to living benefits for real people.”

In a Cochrane panel discussion in honour of the UDHR this past weekend, Michael and Judie emphasized that human rights are, first of all, a matter of the heart – the grassroots heart of people of goodwill, and the collective heart of governments, institutions and agencies in their response to people of goodwill.

I had the privilege of being one of the panelists. The emphasis on heart highlighted for me a two-line poem I shared that evening, written by Mumbai, India, coffee companion, Raj Patwardhan:

Being born a human is a matter of fate
Being human is a matter of choice.

In e-mailing these lines to me, Raj was following up on last week’s column on the recent terrorist attack in his city causing so much death and destruction. In particular, he had in mind people’s choices to stand in oneness with their fellow human beings during a time of unspeakable tragedy.

He illustrated this with events surrounding the murder of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife at Mumbai’s Chabad house, and the saving of their two-year-old son, Moshe, by his nanny, at the risk of her own life.

“I feel that when the majority of human beings realize and make the choice of being human, peace, love and harmony will prevail, and so will humanity,” Raj wrote. “Sounds simple, but it will take a lot of doing.”

He made reference to a photograph and story about two-year-old Moshe that appeared in one of India’s newspapers.

“The picture has stirred emotions of so many people here,” he said. “In fact, my wife told me that while they were having lunch at her bank where she works, one of her lady colleagues was so overwhelmed at the mere mention of the picture, that she walked away from the group and was absolutely inconsolable. Ultimately, the bank manager advised that she be left by herself for a while to deal with the pangs. When one hears such accounts, one can’t stop juxtaposing two images, one inhuman and another human, leaving one disillusioned and in wonderment with the frequently unanswered question: Why?”

I shared Raj’s comments with Calgary coffee companion Sandy Corenblum, one of my mentors in Jewish matters.

“We can not, I believe, ask why, but rather what,” Sandy responded. “What can we do to change things in this world? The Holtzbergs' extended family have asked their fellow Jews to light candles for the Sabbath and to do good deeds to bring God's light into the world. I think at Chanukah all of the candles we light this year will be in their memory.”

She also drew my attention to a speech given by Rabbi Marvin Hier at the memorial for the Holtzbergs, words that have direct bearing on human rights:

"The world has never experienced such a plague of darkness like the plague of Islamic fundamentalism that reveres death over life – that teaches young people that the preferred way to get to heaven is by murdering and maiming,” Rabbi Hier said. “The world must not remain silent. The United Nations must make suicide terror a priority.”

This view is shared by Sun Media columnist Salim Mansur, himself a Muslim. Having nothing but contempt for Islamist terrorism, he wrote in his July 15, 2006 column, “Time to Crush Terror”:

“Bandits win, if they win at all, when lawfully organized society is drained of its will to eliminate banditry from its midst.” Collective action against terrorism “can only be promulgated by democracies with the legitimacy that authorities derive from the will of their people based on the rule of law.”

Which brings me back to Michael and Judie’s emphasis on human rights being a matter of heart, to Raj’s line, “Being human is a matter of choice,” and to Sandy’s desire for light to overtake the darkness.

In these holy days of December that span across many world religious traditions, may we all light candles of hope and choose to be truly human. After all, freedom from terrorism should be a basic human right – and a civilized society’s rightful expectation.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page