I’ve just watched the ending of “The Interpreter“, a political drama which starts when an African-born interpreter at the UN overhears an assasination plot against the controversial leader of a (fictional) African country, who is going to be addressing the UN. It’s a reasonable movie, but what really moved me was a line at the end (which hopefully won’t give away too much): the Security Council unanimously decides to refer the controversial president to the International Criminal Court, to be tried for crimes against humanity.
It’s an implausible result. But not, any more, impossible. And that got me thinking about how, in a world with so many injustices, still there are signs and symbols of our progress toward a better future:
The International Criminal Court exists. Though a key country remains vehementy opposed to it, the Court has had the situation in the Darfur, Sudan, referred to it by the Security Council. And just a few days ago warrants for the arrest of the leaders of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (based in northern Uganda) were issued. Some leaders may be held accountable for their crimes.
The African Union has observers and a few peacekeepers on the ground in the Darfur region. They are too few to stop the fighting, or rebuild the shattered villages. But an organisation representing all but one country in the whole continent is acting within a country for the rights of ordinary people.
Burundi had peaceful elections in the last few months. There remains much tension, and seats in parliament are reserved along ethnic lines. But after Tutsi domination dating to the Belgian occupation, and the wars and genocide that resulted, peace is holding and power is being shared, with UN peacekeepers guaranteeing the safety of the leaders that come out of hiding.
The European Union, by its very existence, continues to promote human rights. Though its constitution is in a limbo, and its agricultural subsidies continue to trap millions in the developing world in poverty, the pull of economic gain from membership continues to push eastern European countries, and Turkey, toward positive reform.
South Africa (close to my heart) is a free country. Huge inequalities in wealth and opportunity remain, and AIDS is ravaging society. But everyone is equal in the eye of the law, and both oppressor and oppressed now live freely.
And we have the United Nations. The Security Council is an historical anachronism, the General Assembly can make only recommendations, and the UN has no power to do anything other than what it can persuade individual countries to do. But the world’s poorest countries have a (small) voice in the world, and at the sites of even the world’s least-known tragedies and famines, UN aid can be found.
Ever since agriculture disturbed the patterns of old, humanity has been striving to find a better model of society. Over the years, the words have become better — even the worst governments now claim at least to be governing for the interests of the people, and “human rights” exist as a concept. Inevitably the actions lag the words, but amongst the failures, shortcomings and weaknesses are signs of improvement, of humanity walking falteringly toward a better model of society.
There remain so many problems, but sometimes it’s good to remember small successes, and realise again that we have symbols, like the UN, of a future when true democracy, freedom and human rights apply equally to everyone, everywhere.