He stood in the middle of Tiananmen Square, without a hope of prevailing.
The tanks had just begun moving in. The student revolt in China in 1989 had become a nuisance to the Chinese government, so they decided to end it -- with armed militia and tanks. The result was a massacre that killed dozens of students, with their only crime being the desire for the freedom and democracy that we enjoy here, on the other side of the world. Despite the students’ utter defeat, one resonant image stood out.
He’s become known as the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square. He faced down a tank with it’s primary cannon pointed directly at him. He climbed on top of the tank, banging on the hatch defiantly.
It’s been more than 20 years since that futile stand, and that image has faded against the landscape of a global economy in which China is a major player.
So, it’s easy to forget that 62 years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt engineered an effort to create a universal declaration that clearly delineates the concept of human rights. It has also been almost forgotten that the United Nations unanimously approved the declaration, including a key vote from the United States. The resolution was not binding, had no power of law and resulted in no real change in foreign policy. But it was still a statement of a belief, a belief which is being forgotten by our leaders and politicians.
So, I wanted to take a moment to remind them that many of us have not forgotten that declaration. It states, “THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”
Human rights is not just about Chinese students or Cuban political prisoners. It’s about women and children who are delivered into sexual slavery while world governments look the other way. It’s about educating our children to understand what human rights are in their own country, and urging them to conduct themselves in a way that is respectful of everyone’s inalienable human rights. It is about urging politicians to support policies that promote the education of human rights in their countries.
And it’s about not forgetting what kind of courage and desire to be free it takes to stand down a tank, alone, and to make the dream of freedom a reality.
Gracia Bennish is the president of United for Human Rights (UHR), which is a not for profit organization that assists and unites individuals, educators, organizations and governmental bodies to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at local, regional, national and international levels.