All Human Beings

The final post in our series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence. Photo: United Nations.

On December 10, 1948 the newly established General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR). No nation voted against it, although a few, like Saudi Arabia, abstained. That means today is the 70th anniversary of what is undoubtedly the most important document of the modern era, and expressed the aspirations of a world population still reeling from the horrors wrought by fascism during World War II.

The UDHR is a political document – hammered out over two years by a Commission ‘“made up of 18 members from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the UDHR drafting committee.”

The preamble begins, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,” (That paragraph refers to the “Four Freedoms” speech by President Roosevelt before the US entered World War II, of his vision for the Post-war world.)

If you could sum up the 16 Days of Activism in just 3 words, “freedom from fear” could be it. Not only do a huge proportion of women and girls fall victim to gender-based violence, all women and girls live in fear of it.

Many today argue (as they did in 1948) that Human Rights are not universal, but Western – and that the thought of gender equality is especially Western. But there is  rich literature from every region and culture demonstrating that these ideas have been held by spiritual leaders forever.

Article One begins: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It reminds many of the US Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Apparently in the drafting stage, Mrs. Roosevelt prefered using the language “All men.” So who  got it changed? It was Hansa Mehta of India.

Hansa Mehta

India is a nation where the status of women is exceptionally bad, and its Women’s Rights Movement goes back more than 150 years in its struggle for gender justice. Hansa Mehta was among the 15 women who were part of the constituent assembly that drafted India’s Constitution – (which, unlike the US Constitution, establishes Equal Rights for Women), and she served as president of the All India Women’s Conference in 1945-46 where she proposed a Charter of Women’s Rights.

The Nobel Prize-winning Economist Amartya Sen – a champion of women’s rights – tells the story that men in India frequently come up to him and argue “Our Women Don’t Think This Way!” Sen’s response is – “Well, then it’s about time they had the opportunity to do so!” Certainly, however, millions of Indian women have thought that way for a long time. Had Hansa Mehta not been one of them, its likely the forces of patriarchy would point to the UDHR as a document that reinforces their misogyny.

Women Human Rights Defenders

Fifth in a series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence

I am always deeply inspired by each of the heroic women and men who have served as United Nations High Commissioners for Human Rights. The High Commissioner’s “To Do” list is horrific, dealing personally and skillfully with one brutal situation after another. (Many people confuse the High Commissioner with the Human Rights Council. They are quite distinct.)

Our newest High Commissioner is Michelle Bachelet – former President of Chile and the first director of UN Women. I first met Ms. Bachelet when she hosted “The World Women Want” at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012 (my photo above). I found her to be immensely personable with everyone she encountered. She will need every ounce of that to make progress in our world!

Today, November 29, is International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. To mark this occasion, UN top experts issued this statement,  including in part: “The current global context of unchecked authoritarianism as well as the rise of populism, of corporate power and of fundamentalist groups are contributing towards closing the space for civil society. This is being done through the enactment of laws and practices that effectively impede human rights work…”

“In addition to the risks of threats, attacks and violence faced by all human rights defenders, women human rights defenders are exposed to specific risks such as sexual violence, defamation, intimidation, including against their family members, in order to deter them from continuing their valuable work. In 2017, Front Line Defenders recorded the killings of 44 women human rights defenders, an increase from 40 in 2016 and 30 in 2015.”

The group Front Line Defenders has been named winner of the 2018 United Nations Human Rights Prize. From regional offices around the world, it offers both long-term and emergency support for Human Rights Defenders.

In truth, though, each of us has the responsibility to defend human rights, and defend the defenders.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – which celebrates its 70th Anniversary on December 10th – puts this squarely in each of our courts. “Every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.”

In his introduction to the 2015 printing of the UDHR, then-Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon wrote, “Let us ensure that those people who most need their rights protected (emphasis mine) are made aware that this Declaration exists — and that it exists for them. Let us each do our part to make these universal rights a living reality for every man, woman and child, everywhere.”

The victims of gender-based violence are clearly among those “who most need their rights protected” – in every community on earth. Indeed, it is at the community level where people must organize to demand and protect their rights. Our Movement for Community-led Development exists to develop the capacity of every community to succeed in this mission.