Each year on December 10, people all around the world celebrate Human Rights Day. The date was chosen to honor the United Nations General Assembly‘s adoption on 10 December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first global statement of international human rights principles. The UDHR was the first international document that spelled out the “basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy.” The UDHR has been translated into more than 500 languages, making it the most translated document in the world.
For 2020, the Human Rights Day theme is “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights”. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s theme focuses on the need to ensure that human rights are central to recovery efforts.
We will reach our common global goals only if we are able to create equal opportunities for all, address the failures exposed and exploited by COVID-19, and apply human rights standards to tackle entrenched, systematic, and intergenerational inequalities, exclusion and discrimination. 10 December is an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of human rights in re-building the world we want, the need for global solidarity as well as our interconnectedness and shared humanity.
Human Rights Day also provides the opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of human rights at the local, national, and international levels. For example, The City of Minneapolis and the United Nations Association of Minnesota in collaboration with other local organizations will offer a virtual panel discussion with local human rights leaders including The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist, senior staff attorney, at 11am CT on December 10. Additionally, The Advocates will hold a volunteer information session via Zoom on December 16 at noon CT, for anyone interested in learning more about ways to engage in human rights.
What are human rights? Human rights are the minimum standards that are necessary for all people to live with dignity, freedom, equality, justice, and peace. Every person has these rights simply because they are human beings – and they cannot be taken away. They are guaranteed to everyone without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. These rights are interconnected and indivisible. Human rights are essential for each of us to develop to our full potential, as individuals and as members of our communities.
Why do human rights matter? Human rights standards are are also part of international law, contained in multilateral treaties that define specific rights that countries are required to uphold. Countries often incorporate international human rights standards in their own national, state, and local laws. While it is international community agreement that defines the minimum human rights that must be protected and promoted, the impact of human rights is deepest at the individual and community level. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Chairperson of the UDHR drafting committee and one of the primary authors of the UDHR, described it like this:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Why does The Advocates conduct international advocacy? The Advocates’ mission is to implement international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. We engage with the UN to amplify the voices of our clients and partners to leverage the authority of the UN, pushing governments to uphold their responsibility to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. The Advocates’ international advocacy involves documenting human rights violations and submitting written reports. We work alongside our partners to brief UN treaty bodies, lobby delegates to the Human Rights Council, host panel discussions for UN audiences, and lodge formal complaints. (Read more about how we build our partners’ capacity to engage in UN advocacy here.)
How does The Advocates connect local human rights issues with the international human rights framework? The Human Rights Day theme Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights is particularly meaningful this year. The murder of George Floyd by police officers in May in Minneapolis, the city where The Advocates for Human Rights is headquartered, starkly illustrated the widespread and longstanding human rights violations experienced by Black people at the hands of armed State actors in our local community. Yet no major U.S. city, including Minneapolis, meets basic, minimum international standards regarding police use of force. (Read more in our article Police Use of Force: Minnesota Falls Short) Using international human rights standards to identify where U.S. laws and practices fall short can also help us to identify ways to address the gaps.
In June, The Advocates made a written statement and recommendations at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council about the urgent need to dismantle the systemic racism that both fuels police violence in the US and leads to impunity for law enforcement officers who commit such violence. As the U.S. government response to protests grew increasingly violent, we provided training to human rights defenders in the United States and around the world to document crackdowns on peaceful protests and submit complaints to the UN.
For the Universal Periodic Review of the United States in November, The Advocates submitted written information to the Human Rights Council addressing critical human rights issues here at home – asylum, labor trafficking, the death penalty, and police accountability. We engaged in electronic advocacy to educate Human Rights Council delegates about these issues and held online educational events on human rights in the U.S. and access to counsel in U.S. death penalty cases to encourage countries to take up our issues during their brief statements.
While these steps to Stand Up for Human Rights in the U.S. have been important, we still have a long way to go. You can join us in celebrating Human Rights Day 2020 by taking action to promote and protect human rights. Here are some ideas:
- Learn more about human rights and why they are important in The Advocates’ Human Rights Toolkit
- Check out this illustrated flipbook of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- Watch The Advocates’ training video to get an overview of advocacy with the UN’s human rights system here.
- Stand up for human rights by sharing on social media using hashtags #Standup4humanrights #HumanRightsDay
- Participate in the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent’s public 27th session on “The Urgency of Now: Systemic Racism and the Lessons of 2020” on the key themes and priorities for the protection of the human rights of people of African descent and how to address systemic racism based on international human rights law. Livestreamed 30 November to 3 December, 14.00-16.00 (CET)/7 – 9 am (CST) and available subsequently on demand on UN WebTV.
- Volunteer! Learn about more ways to engage in human rights at The Advocates’ volunteer information session via Zoom on December 16 at noon CT.
- Join a virtual panel discussion about human rights at the local level, cosponsored by the City of Minneapolis and the United Nations Association Minnesota Chapter on Thursday, December 10 at 11am CT.
By Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director at The Advocates for Human Rights