Today, Sunday 10 December, is Human Rights Day. On this day, I feel proud when I reflect on how far we have come over the last century, in terms of pursuing a better world, and fairer societies. And at the same time, I can’t help but be worried about some of the steps we seem to be taking backwards, with rights that we are seeing eroded almost on a daily basis, such as the right to seek asylum and receive international protection, the right to live your life free from any discrimination (be it of a racial, political, sexual or any other form), the right to live free from violence, the right to equal protection of the law, the right to be protected from arbitrary interference with our privacy, or attacks on our reputation.
We are also seeing how some rights are overlooked or trumped by a misunderstanding of how human rights work, such as claiming the right to free speech while violating the right of others to live free from discrimination or incitement to discrimination. Many people and policy makers do not understand that rights come with responsibilities: human rights are not a way of getting yourself ahead at the expense of others. They speak to our collective community, not to our individualism. What is universally recognised in the Human Rights regime are the “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Admittedly, it is a delicate balance, but I feel this notion is being seriously distorted for political and financial advantage.
Other rights, such as the right to a nationality and identity, we often take for granted. A nationality allows us to belong to a community, to own a passport, to access public services, to marry, to open a bank account, to work, to not be arrested arbitrarily for being undocumented. Yet, thousands of children and adults face the challenges that come with being stateless, not recognised by any country, and very few politicians are willing and brave enough to make it possible for this to change. The Rohingya crisis is a classic example, a crisis rooted in such a lack of recognition that dangerously equals dehumanisation, now unfolding in front of our eyes but brewing for years. Only two decades ago we declared that ‘never again’ would we allow another Rwanda. Then again, we had already said “never again” to witnessing genocide and violence without doing everything possible to protect people’s human rights when we came up with Refugee Convention, the conventions against torture and genocide, the Geneva Conventions… And yet, here we are. Again.
And what about the erosion in the ability to claim our rights? This, I feel, constitutes one of the biggest barriers to the fulfilment of the aspirations of the drafters of the Declaration of Human Rights, and of those of us who believe in the international human rights regime, and also to the attainment of justice and peace. You may not be aware that on 29 November, we marked the International Day of Women Human Rights Defenders. On that day we commemorate women who died while fighting for human rights. Like these women, millions of people are still today unable to claim their rights, they are people without a voice, people silenced. The Guardian newspaper has a special section dedicated to ‘the defenders’, people around the world committed to environmental protection, and who too often die in the process, their rights ignored. Journalists also lose their lives daily in places like Philippines, Mexico, The Maldives and, recently, Malta, for speaking the truth and exposing injustices. While in many other parts of the world their work and worth are undermined constantly – ignored, at best, and often ridiculed or discredited.
But there is always hope. The #metoo movement, Australia’s new equal marriage law, the generosity of many countries towards those crossing borders to escape violence, #blacklivesmatter, you and me working towards more love and kindness, striving for a world where we all live free from fear. All these are amazing examples of processes to claim our rights. We must find more ways to contribute to claiming our rights and the rights of others, and we should demand our leaders to aspire to be in a race to the top when it comes to the fulfilment of human rights, not a race to the bottom.
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. … Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” –