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Human rights are under attack – not just in the U.S. but worldwide. We see rights violations as white supremacists attack synagogues and send bombs to people whose political positions they wish to silence. We see them as the government continues to separate children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. We see them in racially-provoked police-public interactions, in our lack of gun control, and within the institutionalized systems of racism, sexism, classism, and ethnocentrism. Globally, democracy and the media are under assault. These are challenging times for human rights to say the least.
While we may be tempted to despair that nothing can be done there is, in fact, already a system in place to help us. The world is being brought together on December 10, 2018 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Its 30 articles were designed after the horrors of World War II to address the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from war, and freedom from want. The United Nations affirmed the importance of the UDHR as a vehicle to affirm the dignity and worth of all human beings without distinction and without consideration of race, sex, nationality, language, or religion.
The UDHR has been embraced as the backbone for the creation of other human rights treaties, and for the establishment of civility across the world. One needn’t be a rocket scientist to realize that the nation is at a fork in the road. Our daily choices as individuals, communities, and nations reflect our decisions about how we expect to live and treat one another. The paths are clear. The choices we make will shape not just our own immediate futures, but the long-term future of the world. We can either take an approach that cultivates intolerance, bigotry, and oppression, or we can nurture greater respect and encourage the protection of humanity.
While many communities are already working hard to develop community partnerships and collaborations that benefit the lives of their citizens, sometimes it is unclear just how to do so. As the band Ten Years After sang years ago, “I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do”. But there are plenty of ways to make the world a better place. Among the most effective is to live in accordance with the guidelines set forth 70 years ago in the UDHR. Sometimes the best thing we can do is right in front of us, staring us in the eye, and this is the opportunity the UDHR’s 70th anniversary celebrations provide.
So, how can communities use the UDHR as a basis for encouraging people to remember the universal importance of human rights for us all? First, people need to know what human rights are and see why the UDHR is an important tool for civil public life. People need to see that:
- The UDHR empowers us all. It establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person. It affirms that every State, and every person, has a duty to promote standards of life that enable us to exercise our dignity and equality.
- Human rights are relevant for all of us, every day. Human rights include freedom from fear and from want, they include the freedom to speak up, and the right to health and education. Human rights seek to guarantee for all persons the benefits of efforts to advance both economic and social justice.
- Ours is a shared humanity rooted in universal values. We are an inter-connected species. It is what we have in common with each other that binds us together. We need occasions to remember that there is more that unites us than separates us.
- Safety, equality, justice, freedom, prevention of violence, creative problem-solving, resolving disputes, and sustaining peace are at the core of the UDHR.
- Whenever and wherever humanity’s values are abandoned, we all are at greater risk. We are at a crossroads. Attacks on human rights by people who want to profit from hatred and exploitation erode freedom and equality both locally and globally. These are to be resisted.
- We have the power to create communities that uphold the rights that protect us all and promote the kinship of all human beings. We have the power to create the kind of community we want to live in.
So what can communities do? The UDHR’s 70th anniversary website, which you can access here, provides a number of resources and ideas that you can implement.
It can network you with others to share ideas that can kick-start your “Respecting Each Other” celebrations. States like Connecticut have put together city and state-wide committees of people from all walks of life to create a variety of civic events celebrating our unity and the power of the UDHR. At their September 8 rally at the state capital in Hartford, the University of Connecticut’s Glenn Mitoma hosted more than a dozen human-rights speakers who took on topics such as politics, housing, immigrant rights, gay rights, women’s rights and anti-racism. Music, performances, and organizational booths helped enlighten and entertain the hundreds of people who attended and provided attendees with information on how to continue working to advance human rights in their own communities.
In Salem, Massachusetts, State Senator Joan Lovely is presenting a State Proclamation in support of human rights in honor of the UDHR’s 70th anniversary. Students from Salem State University’s undergraduate course in Human Rights and Public Health will present projects at this event, and there will be music, food, art exhibits, and presentations that link scholarship, history, and civic engagement. In addition, Dan Eshet will review his book on the UDHR and Eleanor Roosevelt, and speakers from One World Classrooms, Communities Without Borders, and UNICEF will be in attendance as well.
Coordinators are finding, in the development of such events, that many people are unaware of the UDHR. Anniversary celebrations like those described above offer a soft way to hit a hard topic. Here are a few things you can consider implementing in your community or state:
· Have local and state government leaders proclaim Dec. 10 a day of celebration for the 70th anniversary of the UDHR. It will be a public reminder of official support for human rights and of the importance of taking a stand against violence and oppression.
· Engage young people, encouraging them to share their ideas and experiences about human rights in constructive ways. This might include dialogue, art, music, plays, or other positive and empowering formats. Schools and community groups can work with young people to make sure they know what human rights are and why they are important. Children are often excellent teachers when they are given opportunities to express themselves in positive forums, this 70th anniversary can be just such an opportunity.
- Make available the complete list of rights in different languages.
- Work with schools to provide human rights education resources and units. There are hundreds of free human rights materials available online that can be put to good use.
- Create community dialogue opportunities so that citizens, policy makers, and community leaders can work together to identify and resolve issues before they become problems.
· Print and display some of the ready-to-use, rights-respecting posters that are available here.
Instead of focusing on divisions that can destroy us, the UDHR 70th anniversary provides communities and citizens alike with the opportunity to turn toward what unite us.
Please join us in a national and international effort to turn our faces toward the benefits contained in the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Joining together to celebrate each other and share our common ground may help us to prevent the necessity of grieving together for community-wide tragedies.
Dr. Yvonne M. Vissing is the Founding Director of the Center of Childhood and Youth Studies and Professor of Health Studies at Salem State University. She is the U.S. Child Right’s Policy Chair for the international Hope for Children Child Rights CRC Policy Center.