Today is Human Rights Day, a day in which we celebrate human rights advocates — some famous, many unknown — who speak out against discrimination, exclusion and inequality. These defenders breathe life into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which 62 years ago today, reminded the international community of the “inherent dignity” and the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”
Respect for human rights is achievable if we make the fight against discrimination our own. Some of its most entrenched aspects are of particular concern, as they are prevalent globally. Discrimination in law and practice makes women second-class citizens and targets of violence. Indigenous people, too, have been considered unwanted guests in their own ancestral lands. Racism is not yet defeated, as minorities across the world continue to face racially motivated attacks.
We must embrace the cause of people with disabilities who are observed with morbid curiosity when they cross our paths, but who become conveniently invisible when they claim their rights. We should also denounce the ill-treatment of irregular migrant workers, regarded as pariahs in the foreign lands that need their labour. People all over the world endure scorn, human rights abuses and violence because of their sexual orientation. The elderly, too, are increasingly regarded as ‘burdens’ by their families and communities, rather than as sources of experience and wisdom.
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 to 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.
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 organisations. Much of this legislation is incompatible with human rights standards and with international norms.
Longstanding 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, 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’s 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 epitomise the creed of the human rights movement and their champions, who 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.
Navi Pillay is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
The views expressed by the author are personal