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We Should Be Celebrating, And Mourning, The State Of Human Rights

The changes we have seen did not come about because of a document signed at the United Nations.

12/11/2017 15:56 EST | Updated 12/12/2017 09:19 EST

Nearly 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on Dec. 10, 1948, should we be celebrating or mourning? Many of us spent Sunday thoughtfully pondering this question.

While things might look a bit bleak at the moment, it's safe to say there's been an improvement in human rights since the end of the Second World War. Where I take courage is in speaking with young people. No matter how angry or disaffected they may seem to adults, I believe our young people have an understanding of rights that our grandparents could not even have imagined.

It is not only their understanding that is important, it is their imaginations. They do not see themselves as locked into someone else's expectation; they can imagine themselves overcoming every barrier and doing whatever they choose to do.

Steve Allen
United Nations flag.

If someone had told my grandparents that countries all over the world would begin to recognize same-sex marriage as a right; that people of all races and faiths would be deemed to be equal; that families would be free to raise children outside of the bonds of marriage; that women would have equal access to education and employment in most countries of the world; that people with disabilities could join the workforce and live independently, they would never have believed any of it.

In fact, they would likely have been shocked and appalled. That is the big change. It is not so much that millions of people have been able to get access to opportunities that were unimaginable after the Second World War, but rather that these opportunities are now expected by so many people. Even where people struggle for their rights, those rights are well within their imaginations.

My grandparents could not have understood that people of the same sex would imagine being married to one another, fight for that right, and go on to raise happy and healthy families. It would not have been within their comprehension that a woman could become a fire fighter, a police officer or a prime minister. That single parents would be respectable and upstanding members of a community would have horrified them.

The changes we have seen did not come about because of a document signed at the United Nations.

After all, my grandmother was in the first generation of women who won the right to vote! Surely that was a big enough change in the culture. What more could women expect? Equal pay for work of equal value? Freedom from sexual assault and harassment? Equal representation in governments? We are still working on these and more, as turns out.

But, let's face it. The changes we have seen did not come about because of a document signed at the United Nations. They came about because of the struggles, tragedies and losses experienced by so many people and their determination to create a world where such things will never occur again.

How well has that turned out? It depends who you ask. After all, the United States elected a black man as president, something I never thought could happen. Then they elected a rich old womanizer, a racist bigot, also something I never thought could happen.

NurPhoto via Getty Images
An anti slavery demonstration took place outside the Libyan Embassy in Knightsbridge, London on Nov. 26, 2017.

I thought slavery would never exist again on earth. But the slave trade seems to be at work in Libya. I thought ethnic cleansing had ended in the concentration camps and death camps of Europe. But the Hutus and Tutsis, Serbs and Bosnians, saw it differently. The rise of white supremacists in Europe and the U.S., the anti-Muslim panic and the open racism experienced by Indigenous and black people everywhere are a frightening trend.

Yet I feel that each year, Human Rights Day needs to be celebrated. This is a day when we look with hope and imagination at the 30 articles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and decide to keep up the struggle. We might not have achieved all that we can, our governments may not be enforcing our rights, but there are so many people, organizations and communities who are paying attention. We can still celebrate.

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Each of us is born a rights-holder, each of us has the responsibility to fight for our rights, as well as the rights of people who are not like us. It may not always look like progress, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has helped us to imagine a better world, and with it, we can make a difference.

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