Voices of our Community

Dec092014

A Bill of Rights for All Mankind

by Jill Savitt, NCCHR Human Rights Exhibition Curator & Human Rights Advocate

I’m finding it hard to muster a sense of celebration for the 66th anniversary of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR) on Dec. 10th.

The UDHR, hailed as the “bill of rights for all mankind,” set out goals for achieving global peace and security by respect for human rights.  Yet so much of the news of 2014 feels like a rejection of the UDHR’s aspirations:  

ISIS executions, including videotaped beadings.  Hundreds of girls kidnapped and sold into sex slavery in Nigeria.  Unrest throughout the Middle East, including a massive refugee crisis in Syria.  The renewed threat of genocide in Sudan. 

That’s just global news – and a fraction of the major headlines this year.  Closer to home, tens of thousands of Central American children fleeing drug-related violence were met with hatred on US shores, and told to go home.  Current protests of police brutality across the country are a testament to the sorry state of progress on race issues in the United States, and the beyond-frayed relationship between police departments and the communities they are supposed to serve.

Many people believe problems such as these are so big and so complicated that solutions are out of reach.  And that is what is most regrettable, and frustrating, as we mark the UDHR’s anniversary.  Because the Declaration provides a reliable roadmap for progress:  protecting fundamental human rights.    

It’s important to note that none of the challenges we now face happened overnight or out of the blue.  All evolved over time – a predictable result when violations, large or small, are left unanswered.  Without consequences, violators are emboldened, and so they strike again – and then again.

The most effective – and enduring – solution is to call for rights protections, whether the violations are minor or major, at home or abroad, and to do it not only in the crucible, after the fact, but at the first sign of trouble.

The UDHR put the onus on governments, but also requires ordinary people to care, pay attention, and take action – habitually, reflexively. For governments to act, people who elect them must demand their response.

The late Eleanor Roosevelt, the leader who brought the UDHR into being, once said:  “Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home.”  She then listed these places:  neighborhoods, schools, factories, farms and offices.  “Such are the places,” she said, “where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination … Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Rather than succumb to despair, to mark the UDHR Anniversary, I will be re-committing myself to look close to home – to see where I can raise my voice to give rights meaning. I hope others who care about the state of our country, not to mention our world, will consider doing the same.  

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