The Promise of Human Rights

This article ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Wednesday, December 10.

By Jon Western and Peter B. Ives

On a beach in Mexico, where thousands of starfish have washed up on shore, a young girl walks among them, throwing them into the sea. A passerby stops and asks the girl what she is doing. "I am saving the starfish," says the little girl. "Don't be silly," says the passerby, "you can't possibly make a difference." The girl picks up another and tosses it into the ocean. "I made a difference to that one," she says.--- Adapted from a story by Loren Eiseley

Sixty years ago today, leaders from around the world came together to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their vision and their words represented a simple premise: that all human beings are entitled to a core set of fundamental rights regardless of race, gender, nationality, language or any other status. Grounded in a belief in the universality of equality, dignity, freedom and justice, the document has inspired millions around the world and helped create the modern human rights movement.

In 1948, many were skeptical that a system of human rights could emerge. The world was reeling from the horrors of World War II. Much of the world was ruled by colonial powers, Soviet-backed international communism, and right-wing authoritarianism. Already Cold War battle lines were being drawn; military coups were frequent forms of political change; arbitrary arrests, torture and executions were common. Violence and rape against women were not considered crimes in many places around the world. Millions of children worked in slave-like conditions with little or no access to education or health services.

But the signatories to the Declaration came from a diverse range of cultural, religious and ethical traditions that included Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucianists and others. And while they were seeking to build a secular set of international institutions and laws, they understood that the ideas articulated in the Declaration were inspired by ancient beliefs and universal values about the obligations of human beings in our interactions with each other.

As a result, today there is a large web of institutions and instruments to promote international human rights. There are nine core international human rights treaties that expand protections and promote anti-discrimination norms. More governments than at any time in history provide constitutional protections for its citizens. Today, there are hundreds of nongovernmental human rights organizations operating in almost every country on the planet. Furthermore, with new technologies, citizens and groups can monitor and report on human rights violations around the world within days, if not hours, of their occurrence. These are significant advances that we can all celebrate.

Despite these successes, enormous challenges remain and many of the promises of the Universal Declaration remain unfulfilled. Poverty, discrimination, conflict and violence against the world's most vulnerable humans persist on every continent. From the ongoing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka to the political instability in Zimbabwe, Lebanon and Somalia, to the unlawful detentions and torture in North Korea, Iran, Syria, Egypt, and the United States to the poverty of Haiti, Malawi, Burundi, and elsewhere, hundreds of millions of human beings around the world are at risk. This list goes on.

Given the enormity of our global challenges, we might each be excused for concluding: "I can't make a difference." Yet, what is so remarkable about the history of the human rights movement is that it has been led by ordinary individuals making extraordinary achievements.

In 1859, a young Swiss man named Henri Dunant witnessed the Battle of Solferino that left 40,000 soldiers dead or wounded in a mere 16 hours. Moved by a basic belief that wounded soldiers should receive protection and care, he returned to Geneva and organized a small group that eventually became the Red Cross and drafted what would later become known as the First Geneva Convention.

In 1961, Peter Benenson, a British lawyer, became outraged after reading about the imprisonment of two young Portuguese students for their political protest. Benenson wrote an appeal published in the London Observer calling on readers to write letters in support of these and other "forgotten prisoners" of conscience. His appeal inspired thousands to write letters to corrupt regimes around the world and, within months, Benenson and a few friends founded Amnesty International.

And in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march on Washington, D.C., and declared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low." Christians, who are currently celebrating Advent and focusing on the texts of Hebrew Scripture, recognize how passages from the Book of Isaiah inspired Dr. King's speech and sustained millions during the civil rights movement.

Here in Northampton we have seen our own neighbors accomplish great things. Frances Crowe has inspired generations of peace activists around the world. Thirty years ago, Steven Schwartz represented David Brewster in a lawsuit that would eventually lead to the closing of Northampton State Hospital and give thousands of people an opportunity to have a meaningful life in the community. No one person has been more central to the unprecedented global coalition to save victims of genocide in Darfur than Smith College English professor Eric Reeves. And Heidi and Gina Nortonsmith's deep commitment to one another has forever improved the lives of same-sex couples throughout the United States. This list too goes on.

Today is a day to celebrate these wonderful achievements. It is also a day to commit to new action. Whether you choose to help an elderly neighbor, provide comfort and support to people who are homeless or hungry or suffering from discrimination or abuse here in western Massachusetts, or to advocate for people suffering from poverty and neglect in Haiti or displaced by violence in Darfur or Congo or anywhere else in the world, all you need is to share in the common belief that all human beings are entitled to dignity, equality, freedom and justice. If each of us simply commits to one cause, if each of us tries to make a difference to just one, we will change the world.

People of all communities and of all faiths and the people most oppressed, exploited and vulnerable all have a stake in affirming, supporting and celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights today.

The Rev. Peter B. Ives is senior minister at First Churches in Northampton. Jon Western is Five College professor of International Relations and a member of First Churches.

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