The champions of Human Rights

On December 10, Human Rights Day, we celebrate the brave human rights advocates, some famous, many unknown, who speak out against discrimination, exclusion and inequality.

These human rights defenders breathe life into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sixty-two years ago on this very day, reminded the international community of the “inherent dignity” and the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”  The Declaration set the foundation for a world free from fear, want and intolerance, where the powerful are accountable and the vulnerable are protected. 

Respect for human rights of all is achievable if we act in solidarity with human rights advocates and make the fight against discrimination our own.  We must do so because discrimination is a die-hard scourge. Some of its most entrenched aspects are of particular concern, due to their prevalence globally.
Discrimination in law and practice makes women, half of the world’s population, second-class citizens and targets of violence. 
For far too long, indigenous peoples have been considered unwanted guests in their own ancestral lands.  Racism is not yet defeated, as minorities and other vulnerable individuals everywhere in the world continue to live in fear of racially-motivated attacks. 

We should all embrace the cause of people with disabilities who are observed with morbid curiosity when they cross our path, but who, all too often, become conveniently invisible when they claim their rights. 

And we should denounce the ill treatment of irregular migrant workers who, in many cases, are regarded as pariahs in the foreign countries that need their labour.
People all over the world endure scorn, human rights abuses and violence because of their sexual orientation.

The elderly are increasingly regarded as “disposable” and as “burdens” by their families and communities, rather than sources of experience and wisdom.
Human rights defenders insist that these conditions be addressed with the proper mix of measures and interventions which, in law and in practice, empower the victims, spur their participation and foster public education.

Many countries with long histories of discrimination and exclusion of particular groups have rewritten or are moving to rewrite the statute books to reflect the universal principles of equality and the values embodied in international law.  My own, South Africa, did just so.

We owe this progress and our awareness of the human cost of neglect to the human rights advocates who struggle to break entrenched cycles of discrimination, injustice and despair.  Because of their unrelenting commitment, courage, intellect, and sacrifice we know it is possible to create a level playing field and the conditions for a dignified life for all. Often at the price of great personal risk, defenders have changed forever the way we regard ourselves and each other. 
To be sure, human rights and their advocacy continue to withstand the test of history and win over supporters every day, while dictators keep falling and ideologies fading.  But we must remain vigilant against assaults upon the rights and freedom of human rights defenders. 

In some countries, disturbing new trends have emerged that subtly constrain and undermine the activities of defenders.  In particular, I refer to intrusive legislation and regulation that restrict the space, financial independence and the scope of action of human rights advocates and organizations.   Much of this legislation is incompatible with human rights standards and with international norms.

Elsewhere, long-standing and overtly repressive laws make human rights advocacy a highly risky business.  Countless advocates continue to be harassed, tortured and killed or forced to work from the no-man’s land of exile.  Many languish in prison. I have called for and will continue to urge the release of all prisoners of conscience. I have called for and will continue to urge respect for the human rights and work of defenders all over the world.

When she was freed from seven years of house arrest last month, Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi pointedly remarked: “If my people are not free, how can I say I am free? Either we are all free together or we are not free together.”  These words epitomize the creed of the human rights movement and their champions all over the world.  They know that liberation can be achieved through resilience and advocacy.

We should cherish the work of human rights defenders and protect them. Our message should be loud and clear: nobody is a second rate human being and nobody should be threatened for saying so.