FOUNDATION: Unit I. Why Do We Need Human Rights? 4 of 6

The Lessons of History

Kosovar refugees fleeing Macedonia
March 1999

Human rights are a social creation, which simply means that human rights are ideas devised by human beings in societies. Humanity has learned from historical experience that it’s necessary to recognize and protect human rights.

When human rights go unprotected, atrocities such as slavery and genocide can take place. In the twentieth century, the Holocaust and the genocides in the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda prove this point. The terror and suffering of individuals caught in civil wars in disintegrating states serves as an unforgettable reminder of what can result when human rights protections are ignored.

A Personal Story

Abdul Sankoh of Sierra Leone was tortured by rebels for being a teacher:

On April 30, 1999, Abdul Sankoh was walking home for lunch from the elementary school where he taught when he ran into an ambush by rebel soldiers from an offshoot of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). They tied him up, beat him, and demanded that he reveal his occupation. Sankoh knew what the rebels did with teachers, so he lied. He told the men that he was a farmer, but it did not do any good. As Sankoh lay begging them to stop, the rebels chopped off his right arm. Then they raised the ax again.

“I said, please, don’t take the left one. I can’t live without my left hand,” Sankoh recounts. The soldier took it anyway. Then while he lay incoherent with pain and covered in blood, Sankoh cried out to them: “Please kill me! Just kill me now! I can’t live like this.”

They did not kill Sankoh. Instead, they drew their axes again, and hacked off his right ear. Then, to silence his screams before he fainted from pain, they hacked off his lips. As one last final act of humiliation, they searched Sankoh’s pocket and took his money. Somehow, Sankoh managed to walk through the bush, to a base of Nigerian peacekeeping soldiers, who took him by helicopter to a hospital in the city.

Source: Crimes of War Project Sierra Leone Magazine, February 2001

Since we have these lessons from history,
why do you think abuses of human rights still occur?

Afghanistan Today: Civil War and Human Rights
Encyclopaedia Britannica: Civil War in Sierra Leone
Mamdani, Mahmood, 2001. When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the
      Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Park, Linda Sue, 2002. When My Name Was Keoko. New York, NY: Houghlin Mifflin Company.