A few months ago, a Syrian toddler washed up on a frigid beach in Turkey and — for a minute — the entire world experienced outrage. This innocent baby resonated with parents everywhere, and shook us out of our daily self-absorption. We paused in our daily routine to mourn and lament… and then we returned to the daily grind.
It happened again last month when 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris, and more recently hit closer to home when a religious extremist with ties to North Carolina killed three and injured nine more in an attack on a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic. We gasp and cry, rally and rage, but eventually we grow weary. We become numb. We are complacent until a new calamity strikes, and then we start the cycle anew.
Reacting to the tragedies does nothing to change the underlying problems that cause them. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke to this nearly 70 years ago when she said in a televised speech on human rights, “The real change which we must give people throughout the world, their human rights, must come about in the hearts of people. We must want our fellow human beings rights and freedoms, which give them dignity.”
She understood that, in order to avert devastation such as the refugee crisis she saw during WWII and what we are experiencing again today, we must get to the root of the problem and seek not to solve problems as they occur, but to work toward ensuring a just world for all. This, we should know by now, is what prevents catastrophe.
Mrs. Roosevelt’s steadfast commitment to international human rights inspired the United Nations to develop Human Rights Commission, for which she became the first chairperson. Under her guidance, in 1948, they chartered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1965, the United Nations declared December 10th as Human Rights Day in honor of Universal Declaration and International Bill of Human Rights.
Fast forward fifty years to where we are today. Many nations have made movements toward meeting the civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights goals outlined in the documents. However, we still face horrors at home and abroad that undermine those goals and send us into tailspins of fear and retaliation.
On this 50th anniversary of the first officially recognized Human Rights Day, the UN Office of the High Commissioner announced the theme as “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always.” They remind us that, “At its core, FREEDOM, underpins the International Bill of Human Rights – freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom from want.”
We often feel that peacebuilding is out of our control — too large, too convoluted. But it doesn’t have to be. Awareness is the first step and, simply by reading this, you are there. The next is action, and that can be as simple as donating to a refugee relief or human rights agency such as Oxfam or Amnesty International. Change begins small. Let it begin with you.