‘Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind

The above extract is from the first two key sentences of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In graphic terms, they highlight much that is at stake in Ukraine today. They remind us why human rights must be at the core of our response to what is being attempted by the regime of Vladimir Putin and his criminal associates.

The key ideas behind the extract – human dignity, freedom, justice, peace and, crucially, ‘inalienable rights’ (rights that cannot be given or taken away or even denied) form the backbone of the logic and emotion as well as the political and cultural map that motivate Ukrainian and other resistance to the Kremlin’s aggression.

As we watch the barbaric and inhuman attacks on Ukrainian people and their inalienable rights, we are simultaneously watching (and hopefully feeling) that what is happening is not simply country and people specific but something more universal and fundamental. 

It is an attack on the principles and practice of human rights as developed (albeit imperfectly) in response to the barbarism and carnage of the period 1939-1945.  As such it is not an occurrence we can afford to be casual or complacent about. 

Fundamental rights such as physical integrity, protection against enslavement, freedom from want and from fear and freedom to be and to do are being contested and contested with intense violence. The protection of such rights is the cornerstone of any realistic understanding of human development.

In this very fundamental sense, we must all be Ukrainians, cliched and trite as that might sound at one level.  Our various responses both official and community-based should be animated by such considerations.

Previous ‘barbarous acts’ in Chechnya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Palestine, and a host of other places (and ultimately peoples) do not, in any way, mitigate what is being done now.  The fact that Putin and his cronies have had supporters and apologists at the highest levels in Europe, the US (and even here in ‘little’ Malta) and elsewhere should not mediate our opposition in any way.

Our hypocrisies, selective references to human rights and our hopeless contradictions (and facile and dishonest parallels) should not silence of deter opposition.  Those so bravely and resolutely opposing the aggressive agenda of the Russian regime in Ukraine and in Russia itself and elsewhere deserve nothing less.

What is being done to Ukraine and Ukrainians is unequivocally a crime against humanity and thus, those committing such atrocities are criminals against humanity.  That criminality is measured in Ukrainian (and Russian) lives snuffed out, homes and families shattered, scattered, and obliterated, landscapes flattened and scorched, and identities and cultures denied.

It is also measured in the refugee and humanitarian crises accompanying Kremlin aggression.  It will be measured for decades to come (and beyond) in the individual and collective memory of Ukrainians.

And it is measured in the lies, denials and repressions meted out to Russian society with all their consequences.

At present there is still a large degree of luxury and complacency associated with our observation of events in Ukraine and its bordering states.  That complacency is understandable, even if foolish, when our security is plentiful; when our borders are not under attack (except in our imaginations) and when the biggest threat to our rights is our own attitude and behaviour. 

On the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney argued that it had succeeded in creating an international moral consensus, a moral equivalent to the gold standard in monetary affairs.  It forms a basis for non-military ‘calling out’ and holding to account of tyrants and aggressors such as Putin and his allies, local and international. 

He reminded us that even if the Articles of that Declaration are ignored and flouted, even by those governments that have signed up to them, it offers a worldwide ‘amplification system’ for ‘the still, small voice’ that animates much of humanity.

As we ponder our individual and collective responses to the war in Ukraine, we would do well to reflect on its wider and longer-term significance.

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