By Zubeida Mustafa
DECEMBER 10 was human rights day. That was the day 63 years ago when the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was hailed as the international magna carta.
Much to their chagrin, people soon discovered that governments pay lip service to good causes as long as their freedom of action is not restricted severely. In many cases they have managed to get round obligations by not actually implementing on the ground what they have promised on paper.
Unsurprisingly, it took the world body more than 18 years to frame the two covenants which gave teeth to the 1948 declaration. Another decade was to elapse before the covenants came into force in 1976. Today, seven treaties constitute the core human rights instruments and a number of bodies monitor their implementation.
Yet the human rights situation worldwide is not much better than before. Power rather than laws continues to determine what rights people are to enjoy.
It is, therefore, good that the concept of human rights has caught the popular imagination all over the world. NGOs, official bodies and rights activists have been observing Dec 10 as the day to remind those who wield power that we no longer live in unregulated authoritarian societies where might is right and no voice of protest is raised when human rights abuse takes place. Press conferences, vigils, protest marches and seminars are the usual form these reminders have taken.
One, however, has to admit that of late these observances have assumed a rhetorical nature especially in Pakistan where human rights hold no respect even though the government has willingly assumed further obligations. In 2008, Islamabad signed two covenants on political and economic rights. They were ratified in 2010. Last year, by virtue of the 18th Amendment the government constitutionally recognised the right to education of every citizen.
In the cacophony on Dec 10 this year, a public response of cynical indifference to the events would not have surprised anyone. What came as a bolt from the blue was an international poster exhibition where the deafening silence of 100 posters on the right to education spoke out louder than all the slogans ever raised for human rights. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. The story of a hundred thousand words conveyed by the exhibits at the Karachi Arts Council came — or should have come — as a jolt to the nation’s collective conscience.
Brought to town by artist and activist Khuda Bux Abro, with cooperation from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the poster exhibition was significant in another way. Its theme was the right to education on which not enough has been said or done in Pakistan to create a change.
According to the shocking figures released by the government when announcing the ‘education emergency’ (is it over? we no longer hear of it), 25 million children in the country are out of school. This was a theme which resonated with many who worry about our education failures. It certainly needed to be driven home and thank you Abro for taking up the challenge and conveying such a powerful message.
The brainchild of a Paris-based NGO, 4tomorrow, ‘Poster for Tomorrow’ seeks “to encourage people, both in and outside the design community, to make posters to stimulate debate on issues that affect us all”. It has already had two such contests in which 4,000 posters from 81 countries were received and 70 exhibitions were hosted in five continents. Abro was a member of the international jury that shortlisted 400 posters out of the 2,780 received this year, The 100 finalists were selected by another panel of judges.
Abro plans taking the posters all over the city and to places in Sindh. He is focusing on the art community, but the posters should also be viewed by the ‘non-artists’. One may say that as is commonly the case such messages only reach the already converted who also have the means to protect their own rights.
To make an impact at the popular level, the text of every poster (this is the minimal) could be translated into local languages and the printout be attached to them. It is important that such activities be made inclusive by resorting freely to translations.
That would create a wider appeal. Awareness after all is the weapon people need to fight for their right to education. Some messages would also help the already educated. One poster showed a book with its title ‘Mass Construction Weapon’. Yet another pointedly read, ‘Being educated does not make you better or special. It just makes you responsible for the education of others’.
How well it has been said that we as the educated citizens of Pakistan also have a duty to repay our country.
It is wrong to condemn the underprivileged as having no intelligence. I took with me to the exhibition Nadia, a Grade 3 student from Behbud School which is doing a fine job educating children who cannot afford the high fees of upscale schools. I translated the text of the posters for her. I asked her to draw her own poster.
She sent me her drawing the next day. It may not have been the most elegant piece of art. But the message was poignant. A drawing of children in the classroom carried the caption in Urdu, ‘Education is light’. Juxtaposed beside it was a picture of children at work. The caption said, ‘Children are being robbed of their right’.