Happy Human Rights Day! Now get to work!

Human Rights Day - © AI

Human Rights Day - © AI

The date of December 10th was chosen to honor the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) more than sixty years ago today. The declaration says that every human being deserves dignity, freedom and respect. It is the first blueprint for our global rights and continues to light the way for our work today.

Protecting human rights may sound like a major undertaking, but here are 5 simple things that you can do to stand up for our universal rights today – on Human Rights Day – and for as long as it takes until human rights are realized and protected in every corner of the world.

  1. Write a letter. Save a life.
  2. The Global Write-a-thon is the biggest Amnesty International event all year. It also uses one of the oldest (and most powerful) weapons of the human rights movement – writing letters.

    We’ve seen it work! Just last year, Ma Khin Khin Leh, a school teacher in Myanmar and Hana Abdi, a women’s rights advocate in Iran, were both released from prison soon after Write-a-thon letters overwhelmed their respective government offices.

    Your letters can bring justice and human rights back to people who need it.

  3. Make a video – tell your best human rights story.
  4. Each month, YouTube’s Video Volunteers program asks folks to make videos about organizations working on a particular issue. This month’s issue is human rights. To participate, make a promotional, less than 3-minute video about a human rights organization whose work you admire. Submit it by December 21, 2009. The top 3 videos will appear on the YouTube homepage at the end of the month.

  5. Urge elected officials and corporations around the world to take action on key human rights issues
  6. Send emails directly to those responsible for ongoing human rights violations involving issues such as poverty, indefinite detention, torture and the death penalty.

  7. Write a blog on human rights and help spread the word!
  8. Your opinion counts. Blog about a human rights issue that is important to you and help get others involved.

  9. Oh yeah, join Amnesty International!
  10. For nearly 50 years, our worldwide network of activists have helped free political prisoners from jail and bring brutal human rights abuses to an end.  By joining one of the largest and most effective human rights organizations in the world, you can stand on the front lines of change.

Human Rights Made Whole

Yesterday, the U.N. General Assembly marked Human Rights Day by unanimously adopting the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (OP-ICESCR). This historic step fills in a crucial gap in the human rights framework; former High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has described the OP-ICESCR as making human rights whole.

But to the media this looks like U.N. inside baseball, and they haven’t so much as mentioned it. (ReliefWeb, a U.N. humanitarian information portal, covered it; and here’s AI’s press release.)

So what’s it all about? In a word, it provides a means for redress for violations of economic, social and cultural rights.

One way of dividing up human rights obligations is like this:

  • To prevent human rights violations from happening.
  • To stop human rights violations that are currently happening.
  • To offer redress for human rights violations that have already happened.

The Counter Terror With Justice campaign’s call to the Obama administration in its first 100 days is a good illustration:

  • announce a plan and date to close Guantanamo;
  • issue an executive order to ban torture and other ill-treatment, as defined under international law;
  • ensure that an independent commission to investigate abuses committed by the U.S. government in its “war on terror” is set up.

That is, the call is to stop (close Guantanamo), prevent (ban torture), and begin to redress (set up an independent commission) human rights violations committed by the U.S. government in the “war on terror”. (You should, of course, sign the 100 days petition!)

Anyone who’s suffered a violation of his or her civil and political rights — like freedom of expression, freedom from torture, and the right to a fair trial — can file for redress with the United Nations. This is a matter of international law, and it empowers people in countries whose domestic courts won’t recognize their civil and political rights. That mechanism was established by the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966.

But there’s never been an analogous system for economic, social and cultural rights — until yesterday. The OP-ICESCR finally provides a means for redress, under international law, for violations of the rights to water, food, health, housing, education and decent work.

This is a new tool for justice for refugees forcibly returned to North Korea and punished by starvation; for Roma children systematically segregated in Slovakia’s schools; and for poor families forcibly evicted from their homes in Angola to make way for new development projects.

Or, in other words:

For more, see the OP-ICESCR Coalition (which included AI).

More on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Reflections on its 60th anniversary by former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, author and former child soldier Ismael Beah, doctor and human rights activist Farai Madzimbamuto, and our own Larry Cox.

And a classic 1988 Amnesty International animated guide to the UDHR — with voice over by Debra Winger and Jeff Bridges, and music by David Byrne (among other ’80s alt-rock luminaries).

Happy Human Rights Day — write a letter and help save a life this week!

Happy Human Rights Day!

Manya Menapace, 81, of Pennsylvania, has already started writing letters for the Global Write-a-thon

Manya Menapace, 81, of Pennsylvania, has already started writing letters for the Global Write-a-thon.

Today is a day when I feel especially grateful for all my rights–that I can write this blog entry, that I am free, that I am not in prison just for expressing my beliefs, that I can choose my religion, that I am able to make my own choices about marriage and family, that I have an education, that I can work, that I can rest, and that I can get care when I’m sick.

Human Rights Day is not a happy day for everyone, though. Right this minute, there are prisoners of conscience languishing in cells, people on death row waiting for the end to come, and human rights defenders looking over their shoulders wondering if today is the day the death threats will be carried out. What can I, who am so rich in rights (though no less rich than anyone should be) do to help these individuals?

I can write. I can put pen to paper and tell the authorities why I’m concerned, and push them to do what needs to be done. Thousands of people around the world are doing just that today, and all this week. Today, don’t just raise your glass and toast to human rights–pick up a pen and act!

How Will YOU Celebrate Human Rights Day?

Now, the outgoing Bush administration’s plans for celebrating Human Rights Day ’08 can finally be revealed!  On December 10, they are going to carry out the first U.S. Military execution in 47 years, when they put Ronald Gray to death by lethal injection.  According to CNN and several other media sources, Private Ronald Gray, a former soldier from North Carolina, is set to be executed at a federal prison in Terra Haute, Indiana by Army personnel.  His execution was approved by President Bush in July.

While there is a possibility that a federal appeals court could stay the execution, the military expects it to take place as scheduled.  The last military execution was performed in 1961, during the Kennedy administration, but was approved previously by President Eisenhower

In a not un-related story, yesterday the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee voted 105-48 to continue to press for a moratorium on executions worldwide.  As the AP dryly notes, “The United States sided with countries such as Iran, China and Syria in opposing the resolution.” 

Last year, the UN General Assembly passed a landmark resolution (pdf) urging all nations to declare a moratorium on executions with an eye to complete abolition of the death penalty.  As Amnesty International noted, the vote then was 104-54, so the anti-death penalty forces have picked up another vote, and several countries have moved from “no” votes into the “abstain” column.  These included Arab nations Bahrain, Jordan, Mauritania and Oman.  A final vote of the General Assembly, almost certainly with the same result, should take place next month.

It’s just my opinion, by I think passage of this resolution would be a much more appropriate way to celebrate Human Rights Day ’08, and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, than what the government of the USA has in mind. 

Here’s another great way to celebrate Human Rights Day this year!