Human Rights


This section looks at human rights in different parts of the world. See Web Links and Further Reading for suggestions that will help you to research these and related topics.

1. Rich and Poor

When we start to look at the conditions of life for people in different countries we begin to see some patterns. For example, rich countries lend money to poor countries; poor countries have greedy leaders who keep the money; the rich countries charge interest on the loan; the poor people have to pay the interest through taxes and become even poorer than they were before. It is not always the case, but it is a typical pattern.

Of course, not everyone living in rich countries is rich, and not everyone in poor countries is poor. During times of famine restaurants will still be serving food to rich customers while poor people are starving to death in the street outside. But is it really any different in rich countries? There are homeless people living on the streets of Tokyo, New York and London.

Some countries are both rich and poor; Brazil, for example, is home to some of the richest people in the world as well as some of the poorest.

Many of the policies which determine which countries will become rich and which will remain poor are made by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Their policies are a matter of heated debate; one of their strongest critics is the charity Christian Aid (who, in spite of their religious name, take a very practical view of life; their slogan is, 'We believe in life before death'!)

2. War and Peace

One of the biggest causes of poverty is war. A retreating army will burn the crops growing in the fields so that they will not fall into the hands of the advancing enemy. Often the seeds for the next year's crop are eaten or destroyed, and there is no chance of a harvest for at least two years.

One of the reasons modern warfare is so deadly is because of the weapons sold by high technology countries. Land mines are a famous example; they are cheap to produce, but very expensive to remove, added to which is the cost of medical treatment for the countless thousands of people who continue to lose arms or legs long after the fighting has finished.

Research shows that children growing up in conditions of war are likely to suffer from stress for the rest of their lives. Even after the fighting has ended, there is no peace for them psychologically.

Every year, the world spends about 35 billion dollars a year (5,000,000,000,000 yen) on weapons. Some of this trade is illegal, but about two thirds of it is conducted openly. The United States and Russia are the biggest sellers on the open market; India and Southwest Asia are among the biggest buyers.

3. Freedom and Slavery

You may think that slavery is a thing of the past. In fact, slavery is still very much with us. As you read this, somewhere another human being is being bought and sold, somewhere someone is being forced into labour and servitude, somewhere someone is suffering or dying with no respect for his or her human rights.

Many of the victims are children. Girls are sold in marriage to older men, boys are forced into the army. Others are forced to work long hours; the Indian carpet industry, using child labour to make carpets for rich tourists, is notorious.

In some cases whole communities are effectively economically enslaved. In other cases people who disagree with the government are deprived of their rights. In Burma, for example, you can be sentenced to ten years' hard labour for writing a poem, or singing a song about democracy - and shot if you try to escape.

Very few countries admit to the use of torture, but it happens even in 'advanced' countries, and a suspiciously large number of people die in police custody. One of the biggest organisations working to end abuses of this kind is Amnesty International.

4. Crime and Punishment

Different societies have different laws. In some countries people are imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs. In Singapore you could be beaten for dropping litter. In some Islamic countries people are still beheaded or stoned to death, while other countries have completely abolished the death penalty. China uses the death penalty more than all the other countries in the world put together; stealing and cheating on your tax payments are among the crimes punishable by death in China.

Some countries, like Japan, have a very small number of people in prison; others, like the United States, have a large prison population. (Your chances of being sent to prison in the United States are 2300% greater than in Japan!)

The level of crime is also very different from one country to another. Violence, robbery, drug abuse and so on vary greatly. For example, Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries, is more or less controlled by the powerful drug dealers who supply supply the United States with cocaine and heroin from Columbia.

5. Action and Apathy

Every society and every country has its human rights problems, even rich democracies, and the reasons for them are more complicated than we may at first suspect. Perhaps we feel that we can do little, but knowledge is power; if you know that a luxury hotel was built by slave labour you may feel less like going on holiday there! If you know that an article was made using child labour you may feel less like buying it. Just knowing can make a difference.

The more direct action taken by groups like Christian Aid and Amnesty International also makes a difference. As a result of campaigning by Christian Aid, many supermarkets are switching from goods produced through forced labour or in unfair conditions. Thousands of political prisoners have been set free as a result of letters written through Amnesty. Both of these are what are called 'grass-roots' campaigns - that is, the people writing the letters and making the complaints are ordinary people, people like you and me. If you want to take positive action, contact groups like these!

In the end, though, the greatest enemy is ignorance. Most people do not want suffering or injustice; they simply do not know about it or why it is happening.

6. Some Ideas

-  Choose a product that is often imported from a poorer country (for example, bananas, or coffee) and find out everything you can about the working conditions of the people who produce it.

-  Make a list of freedoms and rights which you enjoy in Japan (for example, the right to vote, the right to go to a church or shrine, the right to an education). Then take a map and choose any country in the world at random. Find out if the people of that country enjoy the same freedoms as you do.

-  Research a human rights issue - organ transplants, the death penalty, divorce, abortion, etc. - and list all the arguments and theories involved. Then try to decide which position you agree with. If possible, discuss the issue with others before coming to a final decision.

See Web Links and Further Reading for a range of sources for further information.

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