The Power of Rights

October 3, 2019

To unlock the human potential that’s in each and every single person, in all of its great diversity, that is the promise
of the human rights movement. Human rights are a powerful tool for
each individual to find his or her place in a more
equal society. Human rights is an ethical statement initially. What is it that we have reason to want for us and for fellow human beings. By virtue of the fact of us being human beings they are our rights. Rights to live, to say what we want, to be free. To be treated fairly and equally regardless of race or religion or gender. To not be tortured, brutalized, abused. To be treated with dignity. What we’ve seen from the Second World War to Rwanda is a collective failure of humanity. This can happen in any society. In late May 1992, my villagers and I were ordered to surrender. The sub-authorities set up three concentration camps. If you want to see what a genocider looks like, go to your bathroom and look in the mirror. I witnessed the war in Sierra Leone. And I witnessed a lot of the atrocities, the maiming, the chopping of arms and limbs. You don’t get into human rights if you’re scared. A brutal regime like the Taliban, denying us every single rights and freedoms that we have had, pushed us, pushed me to advocate for democracy and for freedom. That gets me into jail, go through tortures, so that the activism is something that comes naturally. There is a moral reasoning, an ethical reasoning, that tells you that you ought to do something. You need to empower people, to enable them to get their rights. We have to think of claiming rights. People
do it with a language they’ve heard, with support from others, with a community around them. They claim it through political dialogue. They claim it by demanding it of their governments.
They claim it through the media, an open media. They claim it through the justice system. The law can be an instrument of
liberation and equality or can be an or can be an instrument of oppression. The whole community of outsiders,
marginalized, poor, have to have their basic rights reinforced. When people feel that they have access to legal services even, paralegal services, things change. Legally empowerment of the poor is human rights in a new bottle. Free press is critical to protect the
individual from the enormous power of governments and their tendency to overreach. That is what journalism is supposed to be about, to ask questions about who’s responsible for atrocities against civilians. To
force governments to account for uncomfortable truths. Human rights violations, they come from the top. We have to hold our politicians to account. on a daily basis. When civil society comes together, begins to organize, and put pressure on the governments to do what is right, it makes a difference. Recently you’ve seen people become active, whether in North Africa or the Middle East, leading people into the streets. Because of social networking, because of the way the world is now, civil society is armed with the only weapon that civil society really needs; information and the ability to talk to each other. And it makes it very difficult to deny people their rights. The Arab Spring experience, but also the experience of things like the Occupy movements have actually emboldened citizens. There are still huge challenges with customs and traditions. Things like female genital mutilation, honor killings, child marriage – 10 million girls every year. These traditions are also extremely fragile, and they are really based on survival without questioning. And it’s the questioning we have to do. I was in Senegal. We had about 1800 girls, and we discussed what was human rights. And the girls said to me, they said, we’re not human. And I said why are you not human? They said because we don’t have these rights. These are the hard fought battles. There are sources for the protection and
promotion of human rights in every culture, in every religion, every country across the globe. In some places it’s rather secular, in
terms of a bill of rights or constitution, Some, it comes from holy books and
scriptures, do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. We should tell people who do not know what their rights are, what kind of rights people are enjoying as well. How do we use proverbs and cultural knowledge, so that they also resonate with what people know. It’s an evolutionary process, you increase your understanding, you increase what you’re willing to claim. The principles themselves evolve of course. If you had a framework that is frozen in time, it will become increasingly inapplicable. The language of rights is just simply been expanded to include food, education, health care.
Does someone have a right to a home? Does someone have a right to a job? Do we call these things rights?
We consider Internet as a human right. Access to culture in general, is about rights. Human rights, they are not static, they are dynamic. It’s a never-ending work process. Today, every country in West Africa has an
elected leader. There have been rollbacks in some countries, how do we fight for rights with minimal inconvenience. In Central and Eastern Europe, the basic problem is
if I’m starting to lose my rights, what am I going to do about it? The most important thing is to empower people, so that they defend their own rights. You have to nourish that, to protect them. The way to protect them is to go forward, to ask for more. Around the world, everybody’s pulling together towards this goal. We hold dear our freedoms, our rights. It could be the Indian approach to religious diversity, the Brazilian approach to poverty, South
African, Indonesian, Turkish insights, can we integrate those? This battle is a common battle. What kind of world do we want to build together? Human rights is an opportunity for everybody to get access to a better life. Every person counts. Whenever human rights are guarded or expanded,
something in the human spirit straightens up.

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