A Fresh Start

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Another year passes and a new one begins; a useful time to pause for a moment and reflect on what we have, what we know, and what we want.

The things we have are stacked side by side like extra timbers kept dry under the eaves – notionally of value, but of uncertain usefulness right now…..

We have new laws. The President at last signed the Family Protection Act into law. Its effectiveness in actually protecting families will rely in no small part on the willingness of police to actually use it. Will they honour the requirement to enter a private domicile when a dispute is taking place, or will they hold onto the old rejoinder that what happens inside stays inside?

The amended Employment Act is on the President’s desk, awaiting his signature. Will we see some flexibility from the Minister, some desire from unions and employers to achieve a reasonable compromise that mitigates the worst of the economic effects and still improves the plight of the average ni-Vanuatu worker?

We have – well, we don’t have prison any more. Following mid-December’s mass prison walk-out that resulted in the old Stade jail burning down, we have a chance to make a new start. Will those responsible get past their desire to blame the messenger? Will they accept that Opposition members Carcasses and Regenvanu were acting in the public interest when they insisted the protesting inmates honour their pledge to present their grievances to the Malvatumauri and then return peacefully to jail?

Will the government at last grant land to Correctional Services in order that construction of a new prison be started?

Will officials embrace the opportunity to improve conditions for prisoners and society alike by taking the Correctional Services Act to heart, enforcing both the spirit and the letter of the law? Will we at last find a way to integrate kastom and respect into prison life?

Every one of these questions hinges on a simple truth: Everyone – man, woman and child, labourer, miscreant or minister – has rights. These rights are not granted by governments, nor can they be taken away.

The concept of fundamental human rights has existed since the Enlightenment period in the 18th Century, and is enshrined in documents like the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. But it was not until 1948 that the UN ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A milestone of human achievement, for the first time all the nations of the world formally recognised that human rights are inherent – that they exist regardless of our desire to respect them or not.

Considering its contents, the Declaration is a curious document. If the rights enumerated in it are indeed central to our nature, why do we need to list them at all, much less give them the force of law?

The answer is potentially embarrassing to many of us. Human rights are not convenient. They get in the way of many desires that, for better or worse, are also deep-rooted in the human soul.

Selfishness, lust (in all its forms), the desire for power over others – the hunger for each of these is blunted as soon as we accept that all others are possessed of fundamental dignity which may be thwarted but cannot be denied.

We cannot beat our wives just because they can’t hit back at us. We cannot ignore the needs of our children just because they cannot demand them. Nor can we ignore the needs of the working man, no matter how unskilled or ignorant, simply because it reduces our profit margin.

We can restrict his liberty for the welfare of all, but we cannot take away a prisoner’s rights. They are not ours to give or take.

Notwithstanding the prevarication of a few seeking to justify thought and action after the fact, I know of no one in Vanuatu who will deny that kastom shares that central principle that human beings have inherent rights and responsibilities to one another, that they were granted by God and must be respected by man.

Respect for human rights is a troublesome thing. It demands that we take the time to consider others’ needs, often putting them before our own desires. It demands that we compromise, that we avoid expedience, that we show patience, forbearance and, often enough, a good deal of ingenuity in order to accommodate the conflicting wishes of human society in a peaceful and – above all – respectful way.

If we are to find any inherent dignity and respect within ourselves, we must respect those demands. If we look into our own individual souls and see anything of value there, we must accept that the same exists in every man, woman and child, no matter who they are. Before we raise a hand, turn our head or forget the fallen, we must remember that the things that make us human belong to everyone.

It’s time we took those leftover timbers from 2008 and began building something new – something that reflects the best in all of us.