The first time I heard about human rights, I was very young. I did not hear of human rights as a subject in school or because I read or watched a tv programme about the topic. No. It was because I was living through a historical moment in which human rights were a very concrete struggle that I could see with my own eyes. Why was that? Because I was born and grew up in a country under a military dictatorship, an authoritarian regime that violated human rights for nearly twenty years. The knowledge of “human rights violations”, fear and insecurity were present throughout my childhood and teen years. Horrible things happened in my country, and that experience shaped my understanding and commitment to human rights.
In my country, there was no freedom to speak publicly about human rights, no free elections, no free media, and the control was in the hands of the army. As a result, thousands of people were murdered, others disappeared by force, and their bodies were never found.
Despite that, brave men and women of all ages would gather in the streets and demand justice. But, sadly, protesting or even voicing your opinion was met with police violence. So yes, human rights were a real struggle, and the hope of change kept my country through a difficult period.
But it wasn’t only the Chilean people. I am talking about the late ’70s and ’80s. Imagine, no internet, no social media. But, somehow, the situation in my country was known. Journalists from other countries reported about the human rights violations, the Chileans that became refugees in other countries spoke about the situation, and many international campaigns in solidarity with Chile took place in European countries. That international solidarity gave hope and also put pressure to change things. In the end, democracy returned to my country. That is the tremendous power of human rights; it awakens solidarity and collective action.
During my time in Ireland, I met three people who told me that during the late 80′ they campaigned for the defence of human rights in my country. One of them told me how, as a young man, he would give his time to go to the rallies organised in solidarity with Chile. People like them made a real difference; the time they gave to stand up for human rights in a fairway country they had never visited was fruitful. So, I thanked them for their solidarity that brought them to take action to do something concrete.
Sadly, I am not the only person with this experience; many countries in the world have experienced authoritarian regimes and human rights violations in the past and today. That is why this year’s Human Rights Day statement is “Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All”.
This statement comes from the urgent crises that are affecting human rights throughout the world. The world is facing a climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing armed conflicts, economic instability, misinformation, racial injustice, and global setbacks on women’s and children’s rights. Depending on the country, the state of human rights varies widely.
Let’s review some critical issues very briefly:
Gender-based violence continues to be a severe problem despite advances. In many countries, gender equality, that is, women’s access to education, political representation, reproductive rights, and economic opportunities, is at risk. Maybe you have heard about the situation in Afghanistan, where girls cannot go to school, or in Iran, where women are prevented from enjoying equal rights. In many countries, people cannot enjoy political and civil rights, and the right to information, free speech, expression and assembly are non-existent. For example, only during the last week, more than 40 people protesting against the government were killed in Iran.
Did you know that our world is experiencing more than 110 armed conflicts causing grave consequences for people?
For instance, more than 45 armed conflicts are occurring throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Israel and Palestine. In addition, more than 35 non-international armed conflicts are happening in Africa in Burkina Faso, Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Chad and Mali, to name some countries. In Europe, we witness the international war between Russia and Ukraine. Maybe you didn’t know, but Russia currently occupies South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.
Now, what is important about these conflicts?
They produce terrible human rights violations and put peoples’ lives at risk; simultaneously, these consequences demand solidarity and action. These conflicts and their repercussions create forced displacement of people who migrate seeking asylum and better living conditions. Today’s migration movement is directly connected, among other issues, to the violation of human rights worldwide.
Ask yourself: Wouldn’t you do the same, to try and leave in search of a better life?
I started this text by telling you about my personal experience and how this shaped my understanding and commitment to human rights. While it is true that human rights face threats and challenges throughout the world and in Ireland, it is also true that collective solidarity and action can create meaningful changes. So many people stand up for human rights worldwide, giving their time and skills to campaign and advocate for those struggling in danger and distress.
We are all in the same storm but not in the same boat. We are responsible for other human beings because we share the same dignity and rights, even though we might live under very different circumstances and have access to different opportunities. Don’t take Human Rights for granted. Maybe you think everyone everywhere has political, civil, social and cultural rights, but that is not true. But there is much we can do to change things for the better.
Believe in the power of standing in solidarity for human rights. Believe in the power of taking action and having a voice. So, get interested, get informed, feel empathy and get engaged.
Image: Michael Sowa, “Seemannolos”, 1998
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