At the Nexus Forum last month, Yeon-mi Park recounted that her mother had taught her to “Never whisper because the birds and mice can hear you” when she was a child growing up in North Korea. She explained that she carried the weight of her words and actions with her, conscious that “three generations could be affected by the action of one family member.” She shared that she had even been careful what she thought as a child as she was worried that “dear leader could read my thoughts”. So much power this leader had and so powerful was he perceived to be that it reached to supernatural proportions in people’s minds as people lived in fear and taught adoration.
Having studied human rights at LSE and coming from a developing country, I had always been skeptical at the emphasis and priority given to civil and political rights (so-called first generation rights) over economic, social and cultural rights (so-called second generation rights). Indeed my master’s thesis examined the US economic blockade of Cuba and examined the hypocrisy in the rationale of maintaining the sanction regime in the name of human rights even as the Cuban people’s health and their right to development were compromised.
Listening to Yeon-mi’s harrowing journey, I became convinced that we can never take civil and political rights for granted. Without the freedom and right assembly, of association, to vote, to a fair trial and to due process, it is that much easier for despots and tyrants to rule, control and oppress a people. Still yet, without the right to (and realization of) education, to decent work and to take part in cultural life, then how can people make the informed, substantive and conscious decisions and choices that are the essence of civil and political rights.
As the young human rights activist ended her speech and asked us to educate ourselves of the injustices in her country and in our own countries, to get involved and to show solidarity, Yeon-mi re-iterated the importance of human rights and also highlighted our responsibilities as global citizens and earthlings.