We have never talked much about human rights. When the topic comes up, it is often in reference to the right to life and liberty.

Every now and then, human rights come up in the context of a pressing social or political issue we are struggling to address. We know we have signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, but that does not mean we are happy to comply. We are especially aggrieved about international conventions when it feels like they are in opposition to what we like to call our “culture” or what we often mistake for Christianity.

Human rights, however, are for everyone and are not open to interpretation. Governments are obligated to promote and protect human rights. The Bahamas, now on the Human Rights Council, should be paying even more attention to human rights and the way they are and are not respected in the country.

There are a number of human rights instruments that focus on specific groups of people and provide international guidelines for protecting their human rights. These include the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. They are all worth reading to gain an understanding of human rights in the case of specific, often vulnerable communities.

Excuses, excuses

Many of our views are in direct opposition to human rights. We contribute to the violation of human rights when we excuse the withholding of these rights with personal persuasions, religious, cultural and otherwise. Bahamians are not the only people who do this, nor are we the only people who are going down a slippery slope in this regard.

We can look at countries where female genital mutilation is a common practice, and considered acceptable because it is thought to reduce women’s libido and ensure virginity until marriage. This horrific experience is a violation of a range of human rights and can result in health complications or death.

Christian values cannot excuse this practice, nor can culture or tradition. The ties that have been made between religion, culture and tradition and female genital mutilation, however, make it difficult to address by advocates in the countries it is practiced as well as treaty bodies monitoring human rights issues.

It must first be understood human rights come before any romanticized ideas about existing practices that violate them and that human life is valuable beyond measure.

The plank in our own eye

Every time there appears to be an increase in crime, especially murder, we start to talk about punishment. Some of us are convinced stiffer penalties would deter criminals and reduce the crime rate. No one wants to spend even a single year in prison, but that is not often a consideration when a violent crime is in motion.

The actors are doing what the believe they have to do, whether for their own survival, to protect their egos, or to send a message. We see it these acts of violence as senseless and cruel, and we are sure they are not worth the loss of life or the consequences. We, however, are on the outside looking in. As right as we may be, we are not in those situations, do not have the same histories and likely see a much broader picture than those carrying out these acts.

One thing we do not often think of is how we have contributed to the development of so many people who find it relatively easy to harm others.

This week, it was reported that the new crime council conducted a survey of young men who are or have been imprisoned and found that nearly all of them experienced physical abuse. There has, of course, been some conversation on social media about the way we discipline children and its connection to crime. As always, there is a group of people insisting their parents beat them yet they turned out “fine,” so their children and grandchildren will as well.

If you believe the best way — or the only way — to discipline a child is by causing physical pain, are you really okay?

Children have rights too

We frequently (and conveniently) forget children are human beings too. It is not said enough that children have rights. This is certainly an area for the government and those working with children to improve.

The Convention on the Rights of a Child itself says in Article 42 that governments must “undertake to make the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known, by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike.” We have to know before we can understand and there are certainly a few things we still do not know.

Children have the right, from birth, to a nationality. Contrary to what many Bahamians think and say, children have the right to freedom of expression. Article 12 states their views are to be “given due weight,” in matters of the law, with consideration to age and maturity.

The Convention states both parents have responsibilities in raising the child. This, we know, is often ignored and we find it easy to blame mothers for social ills. The Convention, in Article 19, makes clear the government’s obligation do all that is necessary to “protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation” while in anyone’s care.

Is corporal punishment not violence? Do we really not see the connection between this form of “discipline” and the violent society we now live in? It may be we are comfortable with current practices if only because they are what we know. It seems we are vehemently opposed to change.

We are all human

We are not doing ourselves any favours by ignoring human rights. There are certainly people we consider less than human and they include women, children, migrants (Haitians in particular) and criminals. These people are all a part of Bahamian society, and excluding them impedes our progress.

We must resist the urge to focus on difference, exclude people, and make it difficult for them to access resources. This is a habit we need to break.

We have come to recognize Bahamian children’s right to education, but not migrant children. We want children in school, but are not particularly concerned about their health and safety and that of administration and teachers (as evidenced by recent reports of issues in more than one school). Is it good enough for them to be in school under any conditions? We should not only be moved when teachers take action or children suffer a scabies outbreak.

We have a detention centre which is meant to temporarily house people who enter the country illegally, but people are held there for extended periods of time. The story of Kenyan Douglas Ngumi’s six-and-a half-year detention is horrifying, and we should all be embarrassed.

Many of the responses to the deaths of possibly 65 people en route to The Bahamas have been selfish, inhumane and hateful. The loss of life is not the only tragedy; our inability to recognize desperation and vulnerable, and see the humanity of people trying improve their own conditions is its own source of grief.

There is far more to discuss regarding human rights — privatization of essential services, calls for capital punishment and prison conditions and the lack of rehabilitation are among them. Once a year, on Human Rights Day, is not enough. Let’s do our homework, hold the government accountable, and demand the organizations we support not only acknowledge, promote, and protect human rights, but ensure everyone knows their rights and can access them.

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