"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."
61 years ago, the UN made this the first article of 30 in their official Declaration of Human Right.
Tomorrow is gonna be a cold one (-9, anybody?). But it's also going to be December 10th, and if that doesn't ring a bell, here's your chance to learn: December 10th is the 61st international Human Rights Day, commemorating the creation of the Declaration of Human Rights. What we have to celebrate any given year depends greatly on how far we've come in the 364 days preceding.
This year, I'd recommend scanning the declaration itself (don't worry, it's not very wordy!) and comparing the rights granted to the rights actually being enjoyed by people in the world. It's likely that you can exercise your rights without too much opposition, but for women in particular, as well as men, trying to achieve that same protection elsewhere in the world is an ongoing struggle.
Let's take a look at a couple of the most important articles in the UN's declaration and how they fit into what's been going on this past year.
Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Here's one that seems to be taking its sweet time sinking in. Follow human rights activists in the developing world and it'll become clear that as soon as you take up the fight for your rights, said rights (especially the "security" bit) are actively ignored. Take, for instance, Zimbabwean activist Gertrude Hambira. Hambira is a trade unionist who has been fighting to protect and represent farm works in Zimbabwe. In early November, while Hambira was stuck in the airport due to travel delays, her home in Harare was broken into by three masked and armed men, suspected agents of the state. Hambira wasn't home, but her husband, children and elderly mother were. Nobody was hurt, but threats were made, a shot fired at the ceiling, and the encounter ended in a robbery. Under the Declaration of Human Rights, Hambira should be able to express her political opinions without fearing for her safety or the safety of her family. 61 years later, though, the declaration seems to be falling on deaf ears. For more information on Zimbabwe's situation, Gertrude Hambira and who you can write to ask for change, check out Amnesty's website.
Article 25(1). Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
It's a tough one to argue with, but lack of access to adequate healthcare is still a huge, huge deal for billions of people. Poverty plays an enormous role, but beyond that there are cultural and political roadblocks en route to delivering the best available medical treatment to those who need it.
Take India's maternal mortality rates. This year Human Rights Watch, an organization devoted to monitoring the worldwide human rights situation, published an eye-opening 150-page report on the topic of high mortality rates amongst India's pregnant women and new mothers. The report exposed all sorts of uncomfortable truths, including that experts have estimated that 75%--three of every four--of these deaths are preventable. By my quick, CIA-World-Factbook-based calculations, that's at least 80,000 needless deaths a year. Indeed, the biggest problems are not particularly complicated and usually pretty easy to diagnose and treat successfully. Most deaths are caused by blood loss or poorly-treated infection. The third killer is unsafe abortion.
The blame is often laid on mothers who do not seek out medical care during pregnancy. But it's not so simple--the reasons women are avoiding available health care include poor education and awareness of pregnancy risks, and the belief, often substantiated, that the care available to them is sub-par (nobody qualified to perform Cesareans, no blood for transfusion, nobody trained to treat eclampsia) and the healthcare system riddled with flaws. On top of that, many maternal deaths, particularly those pertaining to members of lower social castes, just plain go unreported. Women and their babies are dying in childbirth, of treatable complications, and nobody is recording it. I don't know about you, but that does not fly with me.
Basically, it's a mess, and those magical, life-saving human rights just aren't there. If you want to learn more, I'd highly recommend reading the HRC's report, which makes recommendations to both India's government and the international community. As usual, there are people you can write to make your concerns heard.
On that note, I want to ask that you think globally, today of all days, and take the time to appreciate the rights you are guaranteed and that are effectively being protected for you by our imperfect-but-relatively-functional government. We're lucky.
If you have a chance, hop on over to Amnesty's Write for Rights website and pen a message on behalf of a cause that matters to you. Pressure works when it comes to making governments change, and you can be a part of that.
Take care and, as you're out there cursing the cold and slush, remember everything you've got.