The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which we celebrate on December 10, came at a time when the world was reeling under the devastation of a global war that had seen millions die. But the words from Nuremberg, “never again”, have shown we never learn.

They were repeated a little over 40 years later after 30 000 people were tortured, murdered and disappeared by the military in Argentina. Never again was said after the military, backed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, launched a savage campaign in Chile against leftists. This followed the American-sponsored bombing of the presidential palace on September 11 1973 in Santiago leading to the death of the world’s first democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende.

Exactly 28 years before Muslim extremists flew two aircraft into the World Trade Centre in New York.

Never again, was said after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was said after almost 1 million people died in a savage three months in 1994 in Rwanda when Hutus slayed Tutsis.

Never again has become an empty term because ending human savagery requires more than just words, more than new laws or brave sounding constitutions, it needs more than meaningless quotas, it demands the resources that allow implementation. And that we care enough.

In South Africa a woman is killed every six hours by her intimate partner and only 36% of those charged with femicide are convicted, according to the Medical Research Council in 2004.

Noziziwe Madlala-Routledge, former deputy health minister, noted in 2007 that according to the South African police, women and children accounted for 59% of the victims of contact crime — murder, attempted murder, rape, indecent assault, assault with intent to commit grievous bodily harm and common assault.
But in November 2007 the United States accused South Africa of obstructing a General Assembly resolution to condemn rape and sexual abuse used by governments and armed groups to achieve political and military objectives.

Kristen Silverberg, then assistant secretary of state for international organisation affairs, said South Africa was demanding “watered-down language”. She said: “We think there is a real difference between governments that fail to prevent rape and governments that actively promote it. The resolution would also call on the secretary-general to report back to the General Assembly on evidence of government-sanctioned rape. South Africa initially suggested it enjoyed the support of the 43-nation African group at the United Nations. When American diplomats made inquiries, they found this not to be true. Three African countries, Burundi, Congo and Liberia, signed on as co-sponsors.”

Why would South Africa with a third of its parliamentarians women and the highest rate of rape in the world adopt such a position?

Sexual violence is the fastest growing crime in the world. Human trafficking, as an example, almost exclusively in young women and children, is now more lucrative than drug trafficking — 200 years after the end of slavery, trading in humans is a growing business in southern Africa.

Harm against one is an attack against all, and unless we mobilise vigorously against perpetrators we will never end the violence that destroys our societies.
The person who raped and stabbed me had three outstanding rape charges, a murder charge and an outstanding attempted murder charge. He was released on bail after each and police ignored a magistrate’s injunction to link those crimes to the rape perpetrated against me. In my case he was charged only with rape and not the stabbing, theft, nor stalking (we still lack legislation that criminalises stalking).

Resources are not being allocated thoughtfully by governments. I queried my water bill recently and an official at Johannesburg City Council called up a satellite map of my home and every house on the street. The picture was so sharp you could see dogs and people in gardens. But my local police station can’t call up a satellite map of houses in the neighbourhood in the way that Jo’burg Water can.

Human lives are not sufficiently valued.

And without values societies decay.

Honesty is a value we all talk about, but few use. One of the greatest values is enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath that doctors swear to — it is also the value that Google has as their guiding creed — it says, “first do no harm”.

To do no harm demands self-control, respect, commitment and love.

Values also mean regular self-assessment. I may say I am non-sexist, but am I really? Do my actions convey that? Do I feel it when I speak to men? Do I do things that help enhance the rights of men? Values challenge hypocrites.

It is pointless to complain unless we carry solutions that we are prepared to work on. My daughter has just begun environmental activism and she said to me: I never realised before how hard activism is. She said the one thing I’ve learned from you mommy, is that NO is not an acceptable answer. If one person says no, you have to find someone within the same organisation that will say yes, even if to just part of what you want.

Never accept NO, there is always someone willing to say yes. Someone as concerned as you about making this a better world.

  • View more on our special report on 16 days of activism here.
  • Author

    • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


    Charlene Smith

    Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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