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Giving Life to Human Rights Day

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Today is Human Rights Day, the anniversary – this year, the 65th – of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. It is a date well known in human rights circles, but with little recognition from the broader public, at least in the United States.
This should change. Human Rights Day should become a national holiday. Not a holiday of department store sales and three-day weekends, but a day of deep civic significance and action, somewhat akin to the trend to make January’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a day of service.
It would be a day where human rights organizations and institutions, schools, dedicated civil servants and public officials, civic groups, and “ordinary” individuals committed to giving effect to an extraordinary yet very far from realized commitment of humanity to humanity, to human rights, organize events and actions dedicated to human rights education and action around human rights, on how to achieve these rights here in the United States, and around the world.
On the education front, the day would give life to that seemingly forgotten call in the Declaration, the responsibility that rests with each of us:
that 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 and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance…. (preamble)
If schools are in session, they would focus the day on another seemingly forgotten part of the Declaration, this aspect of the right to education:
Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. (art. 26(2))
One day is not enough, though, for the imperative of human rights. Human rights should be an integral part of the education experience in the United States, and every country. Developed through the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights and its Speak Truth to Power initiative, the Center works with educators to develop curricula that introduce human rights and encourage students to become involved in protecting human rights (and is even aligned with the Core Curriculum that most states have adopted).
The day could include a special focus on the missing human rights agenda in the United States, the Second Bill of Rights that President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed in his 1944 State of the Union address:
We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights….these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence….
….We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.
Notably, among the rights that President Roosevelt proposed was “The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.”
Education must be combined with action. Call your Senators to urge them to ratify and work to ensure the full implementation of your favorite human rights treaty that the United States has signed but not ratified (including the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). Participate in actions from such human rights NGOs as Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights. Write an op-ed or letter to the editor for your newspaper about Human Rights Day, or about a particular human rights issue. Call and write your Senators, Representatives, and the President urging high funding for budget areas most connected to human rights – reminding them that this includes health, education, and other programs to combat poverty – at home and abroad. Or choose your own human rights issue about which to educate your neighbor or your Congressperson or to find other ways to act on.
Someday, every day could be a human rights day for every person. Let’s start with today. To slightly alter a lyric from the folk singer Tom Paxton and his ballad Peace Will Come: Let it begin with you.

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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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