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Human Rights Day: Threading the Past With Current Struggles for Justice

UUSC celebrated International Human Rights Day by lifting up the need for continued work to ensure our collective liberation.
international human rights

By Deanna Vandiver on January 11, 2024

“I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality. In the Great Hall…there was an atmosphere of genuine solidarity.”

– Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, member of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafting sub-committee

On December 10, 2023, members of the UUSC community gathered online to mark the 75th anniversary of a historic moment when representatives from many nations reached agreement that humans are born with inherent rights that originate in the fact of existing and must be acknowledged and respected. After working on a draft for almost three years, the members of the young United Nations signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (HDHR) on December 10, 1948.

We gathered in the bleak shadow of many brutal human rights violations being enacted around the world. Earlier in the fall, at a webinar led by UUSC partners resisting the genocide being enacted by the Burmese military junta, one presentation began, “Until the bombing of Gaza, more people were being killed daily in Burma than anywhere else in the world.” 

Only two days before our Human Rights Day gathering, the United States used its imperial veto power at the United Nations to block a global call for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza—even as the world tallied the deaths of over 17,000 Palestinian civilians. 

Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

As Professor Kathryn Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, shared with us, there was great unwillingness of the empire nations, especially the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia, to give much authority towards the enforcement of the Declaration, as all were complicit in violating the very human rights that were being declared.

Seventy-five years after this framework for human rights was agreed upon by global leaders, disregard and contempt for human rights abound. 

And we have a starting place, a collective framework that did not exist 75 years ago, 30 articles of inherent human rights, shared with us as a litany by the Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson. Leaders in a world wracked by fascism, World War II, and increasing diasporas of people in both the Global South and the Global North even remembered to hold space for emergent “status” to be protected as our collective understanding of human rights expands beyond the limitations of thought imposed by systems of oppression.

The Rev. Laura Randall reminded us of the founding of UUSC just a few years before the UDHR was created, a time when Unitarians were called to act in the face of rising Nazi repression and U.S. isolationism. 

“[The founders] believed that by partnering with those most directly impacted by injustice, a world where every person’s rights are honored and protected was a possibility.” 

This practice of solidarity is a powerful one as we live into the cognitive dissonance of what nation-states say and what nation-states do. In solidarity we learn to wonder, “How is my well-being bound up with yours?” In solidarity we ask, “What can we do to make our mutual well-being possible?” 

We entered into a time of collective reflection, each participant invited to engage in answering the following questions:

  • When did you first become aware of or interested in Human Rights?
  • What was the context of the world when you first became aware of or interested in human rights?
  • How has your understanding of human rights shifted or changed since you first became aware of or interested in human rights?
  • As you reflect on your experience with solidarity and human rights, what changes are you called to be a part of? How will you show up faithfully in global solidarity for human rights?

We closed the gathering with Spencer LaJoye’s Plowshare Prayer and the collective hope that those who gather to mark the 100th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will have stories of liberatory change because of the choices we make today to resist facism and honor the inherent rights of every human being. 

To learn more about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, visit our Resource Toolkit!

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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