The celebration was a couple of weeks early by the calendar and many, many years early according to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, but the world came to Edmonton in late November to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
A host of luminaries visited northern Alberta from Nov. 26 to 28, attending two full days of workshops on a wide range of human rights issues. Archbishop Desmond Tutu charmed the entire city during the many public appearances he made over the weekend. Tutu was the principle keynote speaker at a Friday night banquet at the cavernous Shaw Convention Centre in the city's downtown, speaking after former Irish president, now the U.N.'s High Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson, and the chief justice of Canada's Supreme Court, Antonio Lamer.
It was on Dec. 11, 1948 that McGill University law professor John Humphries saw his work on human rights basics adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Almost 50 years later, a series of celebrations have been staged all over the world, but the Edmonton gathering was the most ambitious.
During her keynote address on Nov. 27, High Commissioner Mary Robinson cautioned the delegates that, even though the world has come a long way since the dark days immediately after the world learned of the extent of the horrors of the Nazi death camps (the event which prompted the writing and adoption of the human rights declaration), there is still a long way to go.
"We can't celebrate when millions are still victims of terrible poverty," Robinson said.
Sensing a certain smugness in the well-fed and comfortable human rights advocates who were spending a pleasant evening in the Shaw centre, Robinson reminded them that the battle against those who would perpetrate the likes of the holocaust on mankind has still not been won.
"These very horrors have revisited Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda very recently," she said.
Archbishop Tutu was the toast of Edmonton during his visit. He thanked human rights advocates in Canada for doing their part to keep the attention of the world on South Africa's apartheid regime.
"Freedom has broken out in all kinds of places, even the most unlikely." he said of the end of apartheid. "That victory for us in South Africa would have been impossible without your love, your prayers, your support. Our victory then is your victory. Thank you, thank you, thank you. It's thanks to you that Nelson Mandela is free today. It's thanks to you that we are free in South Africa today."
But it's thanks to Desmond Tutu that one of mankind's finest moments became a reality. As the chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu earned the respect of the world by elevating forgiveness and healing above retribution. He spoke matter of factly about this momentous achievement, trying to persuade the audience that it was the only possible choice his people could have made.
"Yes, there were those who had been victims who were seeking to settle scores," he said. "Those of us who had been prisoners had dreamed of the day when they would be the prison warders. But, mercifully for us, this was an option that we rejected."
Those who had committed serious crimes under the apartheid system were told they had only to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and describe their crimes to be granted amnesty.
"You apply for amnesty because you are guilty," he said. "It's done in an open public hearing, not behind closed doors. There is a kind of punishment meted out in the public humiliation."
Anger, hatred and mass slaughter would not have expunged the horrible memories of apartheid, Tutu said.
"We really do have quite extraordinary people in our land," he said. "And we ended by opting for the novel way of seeking reconciliation through the truth. We in South Africa are a wounded nation, a traumatized nation seeking healing through reconciliation and truth. I think God wants us to ucceed for the sake of God's world. He wants people to be able to point to South Africa and say 'They used to have a problem the world said was intractable and they solved it!' It's a way you can have faith that no matter how terrible your problem may be, your nightmare will end, too."