At the end of a year that has seen human rights under assault across the globe — including by governments, armed groups and criminal organizations — the United Nations is urging individuals to take action to fight hatred, discrimination and fear.
“Around the world human rights are being increasingly questioned, even attacked,” U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said in New York on Friday, at the launch of the U.N.’s StandUp4HumanRights campaign, ahead of International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.
“People in all regions are targeted on the basis of their ethnicity, faith, gender and sex orientation,” he said. “This is where we really have to be very, very aware now that these vibrations in the ground is the beginning of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ society. And in that, the ‘us’ is always better than the ‘them.’ What can we do?”
The emphasis on individual action comes amid a shifting global political order that has at times imperiled — or at least deprioritized — human rights. The election of Donald Trump as incoming U.S. president as well as the rising popularity of the far right in Europe set the backdrop for the event.
Meanwhile, humanitarians and human rights defenders have come under assault in conflicts from Syria and South Sudan to Afghanistan and Colombia. The often targeted attacks have raised questions about the respect for international humanitarian law.
“2016 has been a disastrous year for human rights across the globe, and if the growing erosion of the carefully constructed system of human rights and rule of law continues to gather momentum, ultimately everyone will suffer,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in a statement.
“Many of us are fearful about the way the world is heading. Extremist movements subject people to horrific violence,” he continued. “Conflicts and deprivation are forcing families from their homes. Climate change darkens our horizons. Discrimination, yawning economic disparities and the ruthless desire to gain or maintain power at any cost are the principal drivers of current political and human rights crises.”
Amid those challenges, human rights defenders in particular have come under threat. One international advocacy organization, Frontline Defenders, found at least 156 human rights defenders were killed or in detention in 2015 — more than half of them in Latin America.
Two human rights advocates from Somalia and Burundi testified to the challenges at Friday’s event.
Deqo Mohamed, the CEO of Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, runs a free hospital outside of Mogadishu and a settled community for displaced Somalis, in addition to other services. Her hospital, which lies in between government controlled and insurgent territory, has been attacked by both fronts multiple times. Her mother was once kidnapped. Mohamed said a U.N. peacekeeper intervention could create additional problems, as the peacekeeper presence would only be temporary.
“We are not giving up. We are just continuing what we do,” she said. “It is very risky.”
Mohamed and Marguerite Barankitse, a Burundian humanitarian and founder of the children’s shelter Maison Shalom, called upon the United Nations to not back governments that systematically violate human rights.
“The human rights defenders are part of something bigger, so they have to collaborate and work together,” Mohamed told Devex after the event. “The good guys should not support the bad guys. The Somali government is supported by the U.N. and that is not helping anyone.
“They [the U.N.] are not supporting the civil society, people who are doing the work and trying to find the solution. If you are not doing good governance I cannot support you - that is the way it should be set up.”
The U.N. Human Rights Office co-hosted the launch of StandUp4HumanRights at the Roosevelt House at Hunter College. The midtown Manhattan building was famously once home to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt as the president developed the framework of the New Deal, a series of public programs that prioritized economic growth and security, and as Eleanor drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In his remarks, Eliasson cited Eleanor Roosevelt, who put the challenge this way: “It is a better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”
Amy Lieberman is a reporter for Devex, based out of New York, where she covers global development around the city and out of the United Nations. She has previously worked as a freelancer, reporting on the environment, social justice issues, immigration and development. Her coverage has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets. She received her M.A. in politics and government from Columbia Journalism School in 2014.
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