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Empathy key to human rights

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“The heart of all discussions of human rights is the battle against discrimination. All human beings are equal. No discrimination is permissible. Absolutely none.”

As we commemorate Human Rights Day — the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948 — I recall these words of my friend the Brazilian philosopher Austregesilo de Athayde, one of the key members of the drafting committee.

While we may be adept at understanding the feelings of those with whom we have a close relationship, geographical and cultural distances often result in a corresponding psychological distancing. People end up avoiding interaction with those who are different, instead viewing individuals and groups through the lens of stereotypes; and modern means of communication can be used to amplify and spread the impulse to stereotyping and hatred.

On one hand, the number of people crossing national borders is growing to an unprecedented level. On the other hand, xenophobia is becoming increasingly virulent in many places around the world, often taking the form of hate speech and hate crimes targeting people of specific ethnic or religious identities. Such acts, regardless of their target, are impermissible violations of human rights.

People witnessing such aggression — even if they don’t actively support it — may be quick to conclude that there is some fault on the part of the victims that justifies such treatment. This kind of passivity and indifference only makes the situation worse.

To counter such trends, the United Nations launched the Human Rights up Front initiative in 2013. This seeks to position human rights and the protection of civilians as a core responsibility throughout the U.N. system.

It is increasingly urgent to recognize individual abuses of human rights as warning signs and take proactive steps before they escalate into grave, large-scale violations.

The contemporary challenges of prolonged conflicts and intensified xenophobia come together in the refugee crisis. It is crucial to view people who have become refugees not in terms of their ethnicity or religion but as our fellow humans, people bearing painful burdens and in need of support.

Although displaced people seeking refuge have often been met with a range of negative reactions, there are nevertheless many people in receiving countries who follow the natural human impulse to offer help.

In this, they are moved by the innate urge of empathy which exists independently of the codified norms of human rights. Such empathy is the light of humanity that any of us can cause to shine, illuminating the path forward for those who struggle and suffer.

In ancient India, witnessing tribal conflicts and power struggles between states, Shakyamuni Buddha advised: “All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”

Buddhism takes as its starting point the universal human impulse to avoid suffering and harm, the sense we all have of the unique value of our own being. This naturally opens us to the awareness that others must feel the same way about their lives. Shakyamuni urged us to view the world through such empathetic eyes and commit ourselves to a way of life that will protect all people from violence and discrimination.

We all find the wounds of discrimination or violence unendurably painful. By developing the habit of putting ourselves in the place of others, I believe we can strengthen our resistance to incitements of hatred even at times of heightened social tensions.

Here human rights education can play a crucial role. The U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training was adopted in 2011 as the consensus of the member states and the first international set of standards for human rights education. In order to build the kind of “pluralist and inclusive society” called for in the declaration, we must develop ways of thinking resistant to the prejudice and hatred that lead to human rights abuses. We must build a resilient culture of human rights.

It is, of course, crucial to strengthen international legal frameworks for the prevention of conflict and the protection of human rights, but ultimately I believe that the most effective means of breaking the cycles of violence and hatred can be found in fostering a spirit of empathy throughout human society.

We live in a web of relatedness. When we sense this in the depths of our being, we can see clearly that there is no happiness that only we enjoy, no suffering that afflicts only others. Each one of us has the capacity to change our immediate environment for the better and become the starting point for a chain reaction of positive transformation. Even a seemingly small gesture can have a significant, perhaps decisive impact on the person to whom it is offered.

What is vital today is dialogue and exchange that transcends differences, the active embrace of the reality and richness of another person’s existence. Using friendship and empathy to recast the world map in our hearts, we must work together to build a global society where the dignity of every individual is always respected and in which discrimination can never be tolerated.

Daisaku Ikeda is president of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhist association and founder of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research.