As International Human Rights Day comes, it is tempting to write about Nelson Mandela. His passing signals the loss of one of the great leaders of all time, and his life story is one of the most inspiring imaginable. But there have been many, many people who have written great things about this great man, often in ways far superior than I could ever do. Suffice to say, he was a complex man, in a complicated time, who worked tirelessly towards making his country, and the world, a better place. Definitely a model for what a proper Statesman should be. I highly recommend reading ALL the articles about him, and getting a full picture of his life, accomplishments, and controversies.
But, I am not going to write about Nelson Mandela.
Mandela certainly was a champion of human rights, but this day celebrates human rights, not individuals. My question, though, is how do you celebrate human rights? You can commemorate and memorialize an individual for his work, life, and achievements. Can you do the same thing for human rights? Should you?
Our focus, so often, is on how human rights have been violated, how individuals and groups have been persecuted, and, occasionally, how largely people have protested. It would be tempting to look at some of the major protests, or individuals like Malala as human rights inspirations. Of course, in many respects, they are. But, they are also individuals or events that occur under circumstances of extreme oppression, poverty, or other social ills. For example, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is celebrating its 20th Anniversary on this day – Look at the picture they’ve chosen to represent their anniversary celebrations.
This year, I think it’s important to make a conscientious effort to remember that Human Rights are not simply a bare minimum standard for human survival. Something like Universal Primary Education is not an accomplishment, it’s an expectation. An entitlement, even.
Human Rights Day, then, is not about celebration. It’s about Remembrance – taking time to understand and reflect on the severity and number of failures that there have been. And it’s about Resolution – taking time to commit and dedicate ourselves to the idea that Human Rights are more than just tools to fight oppression. They are the signposts towards human flourishing, towards a better world.