The Right to Humanity
Guatemala human rights defender, Myrna Mack Chang (left) shortly before she was murdered.
VOLUME 28, NUMBER 3, SEPTEMBER 2006
On the night of September 11th, 1990, Myrna Mack Chang, a social anthropologist and human rights worker, let herself out of her darkened office in downtown Guatemala City after working late into the evening.
At the time, Myrna was defying the oligarchy and U.S.-backed military machine in Guatemala to document the long and murderous campaign of terror they conducted against the Mayan peasants of her country. For this crime of resistance, their thugs came out of the shadows on this cold, wet night, and with their long knives savagely cut Myrna down in the street, two blocks from the National Palace. It took almost 15 years, and a relentless national and international campaign, before it was finally acknowledged by the government in 2004 that the assassins were agents of the state working within the Presidential Guard.
Inter Pares supported the work of Myrna's organization, but we were unable to shield her from the risks she took. The price Myrna paid for her commitment to human rights was devastating and cruel. Unfortunately, this is neither unique nor rare. Nor is the threat diminishing. According to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in 2005 a total of 117 human rights workers were murdered around the world, 47 of them in Colombia alone, a country where Inter Pares is intimately engaged. "We have seen an increase in repression against defenders of human rights, people who denounce arbitrary rule at the cost of their own life and security," says FIDH president Sidiki Kaba. Concerning Burma, where Inter Pares is also involved, the report concludes that, "the degree of repression is so high that there are no independent human rights monitors."
Why would Myrna Mack put her life on the line in the way she did? She had received death threats and she knew from the fate of others that these threats were serious. Our experience with Myrna and many other human rights defenders is that such advocates, working in very specific contexts, do not risk their lives merely for an abstract principle - "human rights" - but for a concrete idea: an idea about what it is to be human, and what it means to be de-humanized. They take the risk because they find it personally intolerable that the humanity of others is debased. They cannot live with such inhumanity, and are willing to risk their own lives to prevent it.
As Salvador Allende - assassinated on another September 11th, in 1973 - is said to have declared, "There is no idea worth killing for; there are, however, some ideas for which I would be willing to die."
The cause of human rights is the promotion of the full human being, with all of the freedom and opportunities that human life entails when unencumbered by tyranny and greed, by gross poverty and social exclusion, by social oppression, by imposed isolation and physical vulnerability. To be human is to be fully alive as an autonomous person, to be whole, to be free, to be in control of the forces that determine life. The core of what it is to be human is to be able to determine self; the fundamental human right is the right to self-determination. The essence of human rights is that this humanity is not violated, nor constrained, nor coerced.
In this context, human rights advocates defend people or peoples against being de-humanized and brutalized by the state or government, by regular or irregular armed actors, by corporations and other economic entities, or by any other powerful actor, including religious institutions, the community and the family. And they promote the capacity and opportunity for people to work together in free association to create a common life and future together.
Human rights defined in this way is the bedrock on which transformative social action is based. This Bulletin examines ways in which this notion of human rights is applied in some of the situations where Inter Pares is engaged.
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|Reviewed September 19, 2006||Publishing Policies|