A Time to Recognize and Safeguard The Rights That Connect Us

by Peter Verbeek, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Program Director MA Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights)

A picture of a girl with a surgical mask covering her mouth and nose
Source: Yahoo Images

On March 6, 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a statement calling for an holistic human rights based approach to combat COVID-19. She wrote, “As a medical doctor, I understand the need for a range of steps to combat COVID-19, and as a former head of government, I understand the often difficult balancing act when hard decisions need to be taken.” However our efforts to combat this virus won’t work unless we approach it holistically, which means taking great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically.” She added, “COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus. Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in that effort, not an afterthought.” 

To heed Dr. Bachelet’s call we must remind ourselves of the fact that human rights are universal and inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. We also must recognize that the essence of human rights is human dignity. All human rights arise from it and all human beings are born with it and posses it throughout their life span. Human dignity is not measured on a sliding scale. To illustrate, there is no difference in human dignity between that of the office holder of the Presidency of the United States and the migrant at the US Southern border. The accused in the court proceeding has the same human dignity as the judge presiding over her case. The convict and the prison guard do not differ in their human dignity. The human dignity of the disabled veteran is the same as that of the person pushing her wheelchair. And the human dignity of the COVID-19 patient in the isolation ward is the same as that of the health-care worker taking care of him. 

The recognition of our shared human dignity and the safeguarding of the rights that arise from it is a powerful unifier in troubled times. Now that we are faced with a near global outbreak of an until recently unidentified corona virus we can stand united in the recognition that every person on this Earth has an irrevocable right to health care and security in the case of illness (UDHR, Article 25). With rights come responsibilities, and the unifying power of universal human rights is the way that each of us in accordance with our specific context and abilities has a role to play in safeguarding access to appropriate preventive and interventional health care and personal security regarding COVID-19. Our individual roles are necessarily varied, from driving a neighbor without proper means of transportation to a health care facility, to following “doctor’s orders” concerning personal hygiene or social distancing. If infected or taken ill we have a right to receive the best available care and the responsibility to follow the guidelines in place so as to minimize the risk of infecting others. Each of us has a responsibility to listen to the relevant and evolving science as communicated by medical experts, and each of us has the responsibility to comply with the local and national guidelines that are based on this science. 

Some of those taken ill with COVID-19 will die in spite of our best efforts to care for them and protect them. If the fight to save their life is at the cusp of being lost we have the responsibility to see to it that their death reflects the human dignity that they possess. Medical science does not yet have the answer to the question of how to protect oneself conclusively against viral infections such as the current corona virus. That realization, while sobering, should not keep us from doing all we can in terms of what we do know about prevention. There is much that we can do to limit the risk of infection, provided we follow the relevant science. The human rights motto is that any infection, or worse, any death, linked to insufficient preventive measures is one too many, and we all stand united in this through the human dignity that each of us possesses. 

Human Rights Day 2018

Word Cloud. Source: Universal Rights, Creative Commons

How It All Began

Human Rights Day is celebrated worldwide on December 10, originating on the day the United Nations formally approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  This year is their 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares everyone has basic rights, regardless of their nationality, social origin, opinion, etc. It is the most translated document in the world and it appears in over 500 languages. The concept was put into action in 1950 when the United Nations General Assembly invited the States and organizations to approve of declaring December 10 as Human Rights Day. The goal of Human Rights Day is to create a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations: in order to “strive by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance”. Furthermore, the aim is to show people that human rights are relevant to us all, often consisting of conferences, meetings, and events surrounding human rights issues.

How the World Celebrates

Countries and organizations around the world celebrate Human Rights Day differently; however, the end goal is the same – to stand for our rights. The theme has varied from year to year. In 2003, the focus was on “Know Your Human Rights, while the theme in 2010 was on “Speak up, Stop Discrimination”, and, in 2017, the focus was on “standing up for equality, justice, and human dignity”. Not only does the theme differ from year to year, but also what each country focuses on. For example, Senegal concentrated on a blind theatre group, while Pakistan held a human rights film festival. Furthermore, Madagascar created a human rights debate contest and Azerbaijan held a writing and art competition on human rights. Additionally, the impact of social media over the recent years is phenomenal. Last year #HumanRightsDay was the most trending topic in Spain, while it was #3 in the United States. As a result, Facebook created a profile frame for Human Rights Day, while Twitter created a special emoji. In fact, some organizations such as the United Nationals, Amnesty International, and the World Health Organization used Twitter as a platform to create conversations on topics such as immigration, reproductive rights, access to clean water, universal healthcare, and equality among communities of color.

How you can celebrate in Birmingham, AL

Around the world many organizations have events; however, there are ways to get involved with the local community. An example of getting involved among college campuses would be where individuals could work with their respective student government to pass a resolution to observe Human Rights Day. Another possibility would be to work with the Birmingham community and create an event to raise awareness a variety of human rights issues such as environmental justice, domestic violence, and gender equality. There could be performances, lectures, and a discussion to highlight the importance of these pressing issues, among others. Before the event starts, there could be the option of having a tabling event, where people can learn more about different organizations across the Birmingham community associated with different aspects of human rights. Furthermore, people could start a social media campaign through Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. Another opportunity would be to have numerous free expression walls, all over Birmingham, where people can write down thing such as what human rights means to them, what human rights issues they were impacted by, or what human rights issue they want to spread awareness on. Ultimately, Human Rights Day is about taking the time to focus on different human rights topics and what it means to stand up for not just our own rights, but for others as well.

Human Rights Day. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” – Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 1