Happy 75th, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Image: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

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Welcome to This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s big news story.

The few minutes it takes to read this newsletter will make you smarter, faster. If you’d rather listen, click on the audio button above for a human, not AI, voiceover by my close collaborator Michael. These book suggestions come with summary, quotes and a visceral response rating. Even if you don’t read the actual book, you’ll be able to discuss it. I never recommend a book I don’t like and I look through a number every week to find the few I share with you. Please spread the word. And find me on TwitterLinkedInFacebook or YouTube.


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The Big Story:

It’s a big birthday for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a unique document agreed 75 years ago by countries as diverse as the United States, China and Ethiopia. The Declaration recognises that we are all “born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

  • You can do your bit to mark the big day.

    Add your photo to one of these filters (here’s mine) and share on your social media with the hashtag #HumanRights75

Join the UN Human Rights Office’s celebration of Human Rights Day.

Click here to read the full text of the UDHR in your language. At 555 languages, it is considered the most translated document in the world.

The Backstory:

  • The Declaration, a milestone document, was born in a post-World War II world, where the death penalty was mostly legal, some sexual preferences were criminalised and women had not yet gained the right to vote in many countries.
  • Its basic principles have served as the foundation for several international treaties, national constitutions and legal frameworks pertaining to civic action and social protections. However, the Declaration’s grand aspirations haven’t always matched grubby reality.
  • It has enabled the rise of human rights advocacy but in some parts of the world, the very idea of human rights is attacked as a Western construct.
    America’s Eleanor Roosevelt (right) and India’s Hansa Mehta were the only women on the UN Commission on Human Rights, which played a significant role in shaping the Human Rights Declaration. UN photo/ Marvin Bolotsky

This Week, Those Books:LA

  • An erudite and eminently quotable book about literature and human rights.
  • A novel that asks a key question: what is humanity?

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  • Writing and Righting: Literature in the Age of Human Rights

    By: Lyndsey Stonebridge

    Publisher: Oxford University Press

    Year: 2020

“We read books because they give us blueprints for the ways in which it might be possible to live with others in the world” Lyndsey Stonebridge says at the start of this brilliantly written collection of essays. A Birmingham University professor of Humanities and Human Rights, Stonebridge explores the considerable role of literature in the development of human rights. Writing has historically showed us injustice, not least after “the total war and genocides of the Second World War; the political and creative struggles of decolonization; and the ideological battles of the Cold War”. Each of these periods had their corresponding literary genre – Holocaust testimony; the anti-colonial poetics; the samizdat underground.

But after the Cold War ended it became more difficult to disentangle political morality from realpolitik, Stonebridges writes. She names a clutch of right-wing leaders, including Erdogan, Modi, Netanyahu, Orban and Putin, who attack both the idea of human rights and the institutions that make them possible. Meanwhile, “the West’s owning of human rights as a moral project” weakens the whole cause. So, to the terrible reality described by novelist Arundhati Roy: “Almost unconsciously, we begin to think of justice for the rich and human rights for the poor…Justice for Americans, human rights for Afghans”.

Stonebridge quotes American-Zambian writer Namwali Serpell’s essay The Banality of Empathy, which warns against “the relishing of suffering by those who are safe from it”.

That said, some writers can and do give “eloquence to indignation”, as Stonebridge says. She points to Iranian-Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani, imprisoned as a refugee on Manus Island, who insists we do more than cry when we read about “injustice from its inside, from the position of the powerless”.

Sadly, Stonebridge’s book remains topical in the context of the injustices being heaped on people in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan and elsewhere.

  • Human Acts: A Novel

    By: Han Kang

    Publisher: Granta

    Year: 2014

    South Korean writer Han Kang’s novel excavates the brutal response by the country’s authoritarian government to the 1980 pro-democracy protests after the assassination of military dictator President Park Chung-hee. After the massacre, the bodies pile up and Han tells seven stories of victims and survivors, for eg., a boy looking for his best friend’s corpse, a bereaved mother, a woman who was tortured. The South Korean army was numb to the atrocities committed on its own people because of those it committed while fighting in Vietnam. The novel asserts, with reference to the brutalisation of national armies and peoples: “There is no way back to the world before the torture. No way back to the world before the massacre.”

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