In 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War, the U.N. General Assembly declared that respect for human rights and human dignity is "the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world," and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Two years later, the Assembly suggested its founding nations observe December 10 as Human Rights Day, and invited all states and interested organizations to celebrate the day as they saw fit.
Since then, many governmental and civil organizations active in the human rights field around the world schedule special events to commemorate Human Rights Day.
One such event took place in Vancouver on Saturday, where a group of eminent human rights defenders participated in a forum that touched on issues in some of the world's worst human rights hotspots.
Host Apaak Clement, founder of Canadian Students for Darfur, opened the forum with his definition of freedom: "The divine right to live and develop your talents, skills and abilities, without fear of discrimination, intimidation, oppression and death."
Held at Simon Fraser University, there were six panelists, of whom the keynote speaker was former cabinet minister Hon. David Kilgour. Kilgour works on such human rights issues as the genocide in Darfur and the persecution of Falun Gong in China.
Co-author of Bloody Harvest , a report on the theft of Falun Gong practitioners' organs to supply China's lucrative transplant industry, Kilgour said it remains to be seen whether new laws governing transplants in China will be implemented.
The privatization of China's health care system has resulted in hospitals becoming "profit centres" which are expected to finance their activities through patient fees, said Kilgour. With the going rate for human organs ranging between $60,000 and $150,000, organs from Falun Gong practitioners provide a ready source of income for doctors and hospitals.
Kilgour also said China's "destructive role" in Sudan/Darfur, Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe promotes official and private corruption. He suggested that, until China becomes a democracy, Canada make India and Japan—"longtime democracies which support the rule of law and human dignity"—its strategic trading partners in East Asia.
Don Wright of Amnesty International said that with the 60th anniversary of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights coming up next year, he wanted to present some successes that have been achieved.
Among them are the adoption of a new U.N. declaration to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples around the world; a resolution for an arms trade treaty for which 139 countries voted yes; a global trend toward abolishing the death penalty, with 88 countries abolishing it for all crimes; the release of a journalist jailed in Ethiopia; a prisoner of conscience allowed to leave Iran; and the release of six foreign health workers in Libya following extensive campaigning by AI since 1999.
Human rights activist and recording artist Nazanin Afshin-Jam focused mostly on the "deplorable" state of human rights in Iran where executions are skyrocketing.
In an effort to bring an end to executions of minors in the world, Afshin-Jam co-founded a campaign called Stop Child Executions. There are 89 minors on death row in Iran.
She said people "must start using a new paradigm, a new way of thinking" in the quest to improve human rights.
"Instead of the United Nations we must act as the "United People" to address the human rights violations taking place under oppressive regimes whether in Burma, China, Sudan or Iran. Those citizens under oppressive regimes count on us, the international community, to step in. They count on you and me in this room," said Afshin-Jam.
Clive Ansley, China country monitor for Lawyers Rights Watch Canada, said that upon returning to Canada after spending many years in China and Taiwan he was shocked to find that "China had exported its influence" to many Canadian and overseas institutions such as universities, governments and the media.
The penetration of universities in particular, which used to be the epitome of free speech, is "extremely serious," said Ansley.
Gender equality and women's rights were explored by Miriam Palacios, advocacy and campaign officer for Oxfam Canada. Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty in the world, 70 per cent are women, said Palacios. Women work two-thirds of the world's working hours and produce half of the world's food, yet earn only 10 per cent of the world's income.
Khamis Abdelkarim, of Canadian Students for Darfur, said he "grew up in the brutality of Darfur, where the situation on the ground…is getting worse every day." He said Canada has a "moral obligation to intervene and protect the two and a half million people who are in danger in Darfur." He also urged the U.N. to take action, and to bring those responsible for the genocide to justice.
"The world said never again, yet it is unfolding again in Darfur," said Abdelkarim.
The forum, which was sponsored by the SFU China Research Association, Canadian Students for Darfur and the Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, will be a yearly event at SFU.