“This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.” With those words, America’s First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt launched the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10th 1948. But the Declaration reaches its 60th anniversary under perhaps more pressure than ever.
Articles 5 and 9 of the Declaration insist no-one shall be subjected to torture or arbitrary arrest, yet since the 9/11 attacks, the US-led War on Terror has seen these two pillars of the declaration stretched to the limit.
The most contentious example is Guantanamo Bay, where the United States has held, and continues to hold, hundreds of people it says are terrorists, but without charging them or putting them on trial. The US Supreme Court ruled this summer that the prisoners have the right to a fair trial, but at least 200 people are still being held indefinitely. The Court held that confessions produced under torture were invalid, but admissions of guilt obtained by what it called ‘coercion’ are allowed. However, the infamous water-boarding has never been accepted as torture by the Bush administration.
Murat Kurnaz, a German arrested in Pakistan in November 2001, spent more than four years at Guantanamo with neither charge nor trial before being suddenly released in 2006. “I was subjected to water-boarding,” he said. “They call it water treatment. They filled a bucket with water and plunged my head into it while beating me in the stomach. That forced me to breathe water.”
Human Rights’ abuses spread far and wide. Even Europe is in the dock, with its implicit acceptance of extraordinary rendition, the secret CIA flights of suspects accused of terrorism. But now, at last, voices are being raised in protest. “The EU external directives demand that member states refuse to allow people to be held in secret, without trial, and possibly facing torture,” said Euro MP Helene Flautre. “We know that has happened in Europe.”
The stripping back of Human Rights moves a step further proposals for all-over body scanners at airports and other sensitive places. They may deter potential terrorists, but they leave nothing to the imagination, removing the last vestiges of human dignity.