09 December 2008

Human Rights and Beyond

    The striking thing was not the poverty or their problems. It was their dignity and their ways of working together, whether in the home or as a community. The poor do not need sympathy, all they need is support. We were supporting them by taking the time to learn something about their lives, both good and bad, about struggles and joys. The picture that is painted of poverty is false and two-dimensional it does not illicit what is truly needed, which is empathy. Its not about feeling guilty or having more or less. Its about understanding and helping one another as much as we can, in anything from the daily chores to writing a human rights report or even just sharing what you’ve learned with family and friends.  

    What villagers have to say is no less credible than anyone. They are experts on their lives and their struggles. Academics are knowledgeable on their level, but that only extends as far as their experiences. If they have not spent time living with the poor they cannot talk about the lives of the poor. They may be capable of talking about societal structures and oppression, but the words will always be void of life. There are no people. If there are no people then there’s no point. The oppressed are a faceless, lifeless mob, as are the oppressors. At the Thai Baan Research Center, Paw Somgiat said, “EGAT can fool anyone whose here for a day. You only see one moment in time, while we are here living with the problem.” They are the closest to the knowledge, they are the poor and within their realm they are the most credible.

    Being with them has changed me. It has had me examine my fears and my stigmas. Again I am overwhelmed each time by the dignity and warmth with which they live, yet they are still struggling. They are struggling for legitimacy not only as sources of knowledge, but as people that deserve to be treated with fairness and as equals. Their interests are not considered nor is their voice. As students who wish to learn about their lives and their struggles, we are helping to legitimize their voices and their fight through spreading awareness and taking action. 

    NGOs say that their primary concern is educating people about their rights, letting the people know that they deserve fair treatment. Human Rights are not given power by international law, they derive their power from the dignity which is innate to all people. Human rights is a common language that gives voice to this dignity. With this language all people regardless of community, issue, nationality can communicate and stand together to claim their rights, united in the struggle for the recognition of their legitimacy as people.

    However, human rights is not an end. It is a step. Without human rights, justice is not possible. There are still divides between people and in order to heal we must be able to speak on equal terms.

Alvin Sangsuwangul - Pomona College

1 comment:

Faye Whiston said...


Your discussion on human rights made me think about the weight they carry and the weight they don't carry. When you say, "Human Rights are not given power by international law, they derive their power from the dignity which is innate to all people," it makes me wonder about the divide between the power of the people and the power of the government. I've read the list of 30+ human rights that the UN published and said that all countries should enforce and when our group traveled to El Salvador we saw an exhibit about the rights vs. the reality throughout the world. What does that document mean? It's words on paper. It's totally Utopian. You're right if you're saying is that much of the power is derived from people. But I think a lot of people can use the papers published by the UN as a kind of security blanket, as if someone is enforcing the rights the UN is proclaiming. And no one is. And that scares me.