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Dignity; the Foundation of Human Rights

Humanity, freedom, equality, and dignity are at the very core of human rights as Article one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” In the Preamble to the Declaration, the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world” is underlined, yet in our human rights practice, this fundamental statement is all too often forgotten.

Instead, we tend to focus on particular aspects of particular rights. In the context of crisis, for instance, we are concerned with food and shelter, a “standard of living adequate for the health and well-being …, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care”, as well as the right to “life, liberty, and security of person”. In work with disability rights, we may be concerned with the right to education, the right to work with “just and favourable conditions,” or questions of representation, with the right to “take part in the government” and “equal access to public service.” Of course, having access to basic conditions for life such as food, clothing, housing, and medical care, as well as other rights and freedoms, is essential. Without them, we cannot live a dignified life. But none of these is an end in themselves: they are just the most basic prerequisites for a life of freedom, equality, and dignity. Without dignity, we are no longer living, but just surviving.

I am now living in Sweden, and from the outside, this may seem like a perfect situation. But as a person with a disability, I still have to struggle to cover even my most basic needs. At the same time, it is probably this constant humiliation - the obstacles I face as a person with accessibility for any activity, the constant loss of dignity connected to being so utterly dependent on others – that has made me who I am. This is what has taught me how to search for solutions in any kind of circumstances, driven me to become a human rights activist, and to continue working for human rights in my daily work. On this journey, I have had the good fortune to meet some truly amazing people through which I have become part of a large and caring community that stretches across the globe. The painful experience of loss of dignity is, at a deep and fundamental level, what connects me to all those who are deprived of their dignity, for whatever reason. It is what motivates me to carry on fighting, even when things seem hopeless, so that step by step, things might get better for others, someday.

When I was still a young girl in Syria, and before I had any clear idea of human rights, the rude and dismissive attitude of an employee concerning physical accessibility to the university buildings was what pushed me to start fighting. Others, in other countries and other circumstances, were at some point in their lives similarly pushed to stop accepting and to start acting. At some point, humiliation becomes too much, and acting for dignity becomes an existential matter.

As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dignity is connected to freedom and to equality. There may be differences between countries or individuals, that are not ideal but something we can live with while working for greater equality and justice. Those who are deprived of their human rights, and thereby placed outside the family of humankind, are treated as less-than-human. But dignity is not something that can be enjoyed by some and not others. Dignity is inseparable from our humanity. Yet the world is still starkly divided between those who can enjoy freedoms whose dignity is respected and those who cannot.

Poverty is one of the sharpest of these dividing lines, which strips people of their autonomy, reducing them to become beggars, dependent on charity. Poverty excludes people from the basic human experience of being able to support and protect their children, elders, and loved ones. In cases of extreme poverty, people may be driven to crime, prostitution, giving up their children for adoption, or selling their girls in forced marriages.

Among the most obvious causes for depriving people across the planet of their dignity is also war as it destroys livelihoods, food, and shelter, the hope of education, democratic government, freedom of speech, or any other right. People are chased from their homes and may then be prevented from return. Children may be recruited by armed groups and forced to commit atrocities. Rape is widely used as a deliberate weapon. People not only lose all autonomy and participation in society but even the ability to defend and protect their bodies and intimacy. Bodies are tortured and mutilated, leaving hundreds of thousands of severely disabled victims. All – victims and perpetrators – are mentally and emotionally damaged.

Even people watching these events from a distance are wounded in their humanity, as they forced to look at the anguish of children who just lost their parent, or parents crying over the loss of their child. The feeling of helplessness, of being stripped of the possibility to stop such suffering is unbearable.

In such circumstances, pointing fingers at individual countries will bring no solutions. It is the responsibility of the international community to ensure that human rights are upheld and that breaches bring accountability, regardless of where they are committed or by whom. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written at a very painful time in history, after unspeakable suffering. It was a statement of limits that must be respected if we wish to avoid a similar disaster. Saying that dignity is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world is not rhetoric, it is a simple statement of fact. Ensuring the dignity of all is the minimal condition of our survival as a human race, and only with the respect of dignity can we hope for a life worth living.

Chavia Ali

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