From Zalina Ismail
Almost everyone I know is horrified at the rising death toll in Gaza, set to keep increasing at a rate of five hundred a day. Somewhere among the statistics is someone’s colleague, friend or family member who had hopes and dreams like all of us.
Today marks the 75th World Human Rights Day, which commemorates one of the United Nations’ great achievements: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a universal and internationally protected law to which all nations can subscribe.
Yet as I read about the genocide in Gaza, or the humanitarian crises in countries like Yemen, Myanmar, Ukraine, Sudan and Afganistan, I wonder: how can I celebrate a day that honours human rights?
What are human rights?
Human rights are intrinsic and universal to us all, regardless of nationality, sex, ethnicity, religion or any other status. They range from the most fundamental – the right to life – to those that make life worth living, such as rights to food, education, work, health and liberty. The UDHR says human rights are inalienable and cannot be taken away from us except by due process.
We can and should honour World Human Rights Day. Not only by remembering our fellow human beings in Gaza but also by re-examining the rights we have in our own backyard.
What kind of progress are we making towards improving our own civil and political rights? How easy or difficult is it for us to exercise our own economic, social and cultural rights?
Do you have rights if you are not human?
When Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” of the Gaza Strip, he said “we are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly”. In saying this, he has classified every single Palestinian in Gaza as an animal who therefore does not possess human rights. Above all, he is saying they are dispensable.
In almost all cultures, calling someone an animal is deemed to be degrading and dehumanising. It conveys the message that the person is subhuman. It is, therefore, not accidental that dehumanising metaphors are a feature in some of history’s most appalling conflicts.
During World War II, Jews in Nazi Germany were portrayed as rats and during the Rwandan genocide, the Tutsi were labelled cockroaches.
Animalistic dehumanisation is a recurring psychological justification for human mass violence. It lowers inhibitions against violence and enables the kind of destructiveness and cruelty that would be unthinkable in ordinary circumstances. Dehumanisation is the first step before annihilation because the perception is that only humans have rights.
Do animals have rights?
For a long time, animals were classified as property or things. Currently, however, many countries recognise animal sentience as a legal principle where sentience refers to animals’ ability to feel and experience sensations.
Clearly, we need to rethink our attitude and perception towards animals, preventing exploitation and supporting universal animal welfare. As sentient beings, animals deserve the same kinds of protection and care as human beings.
Animals have the right to a five-point universal standard of care that includes freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress.
On 10th December every year, we celebrate International Animal Rights Day which coincidentally coincides with Human Rights Day.
Uncaged (the animal rights group that started the event in 1998), intentionally chose the date to highlight the connection between animal and human rights, as a call to action urging everyone to rethink their attitudes toward animals and build a more compassionate society.
In fact, today we honour animals as sentient beings who deserve the same protections as people and today is the perfect time to ask: If people have fundamental rights, shouldn’t animals have them, too?
World Human Rights Day and International Animal Rights Day are both observed annually, on the same day and serve as poignant reminders of the intrinsic value of life and the importance of compassion.
While seemingly distinct, these observances share a common thread: acknowledging and advocating for the rights and dignity of sentient beings.
Zalina Ismail is a former professor of Universiti Sains Malaysia.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.