Human Rights Day celebrated around the world—just not here

Reena Shah

Reena Shah

From Reena K. Shah, Esq., the director of Maryland Legal Aid’s Human Rights Project:

When I was in the Peace Corps in Nepal, I used to walk from village to village telling the poor and marginalized that they had certain “rights” regardless of whether their country’s laws reflected those rights and regardless of whether their country’s government upheld them.

I told them that all the countries and all the leaders of the world had come together to make a bold and universal statement that human rights belonged to every single one of us simply by virtue of our humanity.

And inevitably during my stay there, school children and elders alike would come together and celebrate Human Rights Day every Dec. 10.  It was a day to acknowledge the inherent dignity of all humans and commit to working towards renegotiating the social contract in a way that actualized the principles of peace, freedom, justice and equality for all.

It is striking to me that as people around the world are celebrating again today, there is, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., an “appalling silence” here in the U.S.

This same silence was evident during this past election cycle when neither candidate spoke about human rights nor was questioned about them.

This is especially remarkable considering human rights are as American as apple pie and baseball.

After all, the Four Freedoms speech by President Franklin Roosevelt is cited as the opening salvo of the modern human rights movement.  And Eleanor Roosevelt is the central figure associated with drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the premier human rights document.

Lesser known may be that Martin Luther King Jr. actually had a vision of unfettered human rights for all, not just civil rights.  His message was one of racial equality, economic justice and poverty alleviation – pressing America to recognize economic rights as co-equal with political and civil rights.

Undeniably, America has embraced the mantle of promoting and applying the principles of the indivisibility and interconnectedness of all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights – in everyplace in the world. Just not at home.

And it is not as if there is no need for human rights in the U.S.  Currently, about 46.2 million people or 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.  More egregiously, over 25 percent of American children under the age of five live in poverty, with the rates for black and Latino children being 42.7 percent and 36 percent.

Considering that poverty among children carries consequences far beyond childhood in everything from education outcomes and worker productivity to long-term health costs, these numbers should be as shocking to the American psyche as those pictures from Abu Ghraib and allegations of torture that a decade ago made the world – and more importantly, Americans – question the U.S.’s commitment to human rights.

If we were truly a nation committed to the fulfillment of everyone’s human rights – our priorities would be different, our budget allocations would be different.  But in America, the deficit is not of resources, but of will.

What is necessary to create this will?  The underlying issue is there is not a mass conscientiousness about human rights.  So, the first step is for all of us to be aware—to know about our human rights; to understand their value; to talk about them; to see things in human rights terms; and to apply them domestically, as much as internationally.

Like the anti-apartheid movement demonstrates, human rights can bring forth a sea change in the lot of the oppressed.  Let’s remember that apartheid was sanctioned by the State and laws were the State’s choice tools to legitimate oppression.  But South Africans knew about their human rights.  They knew in their gut that even if something was legal, it did not make it right.  So, they rose up and demanded justice.

What we have today in America is not overt oppression, but its subtler cousin – where systems, legal or otherwise, are structured to reward the most powerful, while many struggle to obtain the most basic human needs such as food, housing, and health care.

And this is where human rights can be an instructive counterweight.  Human rights inform us to look beyond existing law to justice.

People around the world know about human rights – it’s a global movement and a common language of those struggling for justice.  The U.S. has been busy leading the rest of the world in this movement, but has left its own people behind.  It’s high time now for Americans to become aware and join that movement.


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