To be able to understand something, we are often told to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes. So when we see an injustice being committed, why is it that most people find it easier to turn away? Perhaps because, facing someone else’s reality begins to reveal the ugly truth that not everyone is equal. This despite the one commonality that absolutely everyone shares: we are ALL human. The acknowledgement that we are all equal should begin with the principle that people we cannot relate to be given the same benefits we enjoy. The idea of human rights has presented itself throughout human history: Magna Carta (1215), the US Constitution (1787) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) are just some of the few examples. Yet, despite the wide acknowledgement that human rights exist, this still appears to be a concept that not everyone seems to be grasping, not even those tasked to uphold these principles. To understand the depth of its importance, it is crucial to go back to the root of why human rights were developed and what this means for people here in Fiji.
People, at the very heart of it, are communal beings. We thrive at being part of a group that allows us to share common interests yet at the same time maintain aspects of individualism that our freedoms are owed to. The first recorded charter for human rights did not begin with Magna Carta; it began in 539 BC when Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, captured Babylon, ‘freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality’ (United for Human Rights, 2008). This move set forth a philosophy that quickly spread as far as Rome, establishing the belief that people benefitted from having rights (and responsibilities) through their membership in a community and greater society (Shiman, 1993).
Disagreements between human rights and Pacific culture are often illustrated by infringes on the rights of other factions of society. This is because the rights that people are entitled to are rights by which they have no access to (MacKinnon, 1994).
For too long, we have deceived ourselves into thinking that some of us are more important than others. This idea gives grounds for the harsh and cruel treatment of people seen as ‘beneath us’. The idea of a document that guarantees we are defined by nothing more than our humanity is an idea that seems far-fetched but obtainable. The challenge here in the Pacific and to the wider community, is to take a stand against the injustices caused by our own justifications that some people are more important than others. In Fiji alone, we are governed by cultural and traditional privileges that are seen to contradict the Western idea of human rights. As human rights become more assertive in modern day Pacific, the need to incorporate this with our rich heritage becomes even more crucial (Haines-Sutherland, 2010).
Culture and tradition, being an evolutionary process on its own, must be able to alter in order to effectively comply with the international standard of human rights. A human rights approach in a Pacific context should be able to reflect the customs and values while elevating all people to equal status.
This is an extract from an essay titled “Human Rights Development – Why human rights are relevant in the Pacific”, that was written for a DG100 – Introduction to Leadership, Governance and Human Rights assignment last year (2014).