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Everyone Should Be Aware Of Their
Inalienable Human Rights

By Shulamith Koenig

25 November, 2009
Huffington Post

"Our future is beyond our vision but not beyond our control" -Senator Edward M. Kennedy

It has been almost two months since Ted Kennedy died. Discussions about health care and a public option and/or the sad state of public education in the USA would have had much deeper moral dimensions and sane practical solutions had he been walking the corridors of the Senate today. He was a human rights senator!

Yes! Senator Kennedy embodied unrelenting commitment and took control with tireless, well-defined dedication. He told his children that he was able to reach some of his goals, not because he was smarter, but because he was determined to do all he could to change the future. He saw on the far horizon a possible new world order. He imagined and re-imagined communities that rise out of poverty, women and men overcoming poverty's humiliating consequences where people exchange their equality for survival.

He did not articulate his vision by quoting human rights norms and standards, but intuitively, he practiced and fought for human rights as a way of life, encompassing a holistic vision that stands to fulfill humanity's age-old hopes and expectations. He might have spoken about human rights as a promise to belong with dignity in a community with others, or in the words of Nelson Mandela -- to create a new political culture based on human rights.

If those of us working to make this world a better place took the time to learn, discuss and know human rights as a moral imperative, our vision could extend beyond the "shimmering horizon".

Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of human rights as "unconditional love," calling on all to accept it as mandated by moral authority, calling for a society where all people realize human rights as a way of life.

Allow me humbly to ask you to walk with me into this discourse about human rights as a way of life, slowly and thoughtfully. Let us bring a new expansive meaning to this overarching holistic vision and practical mission through learning and dialogue.

At part of the recent 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Elders, of which Jimmy Carter is a member, issued an enthusiastic call: All HUMANS have RIGHTS.

With all the respect I have for these great people, I sent them a note asking, "But do the humans know them?"

If all women, men, youth and children know, own and internalize human rights as relevant to their daily struggles, the inclusiveness, universality indivisibility, and interconnectedness of human rights would have people participate proactively and positively in the decisions that determine their lives. They would break through the vicious cycle of humiliation and make this a secure and nurturing place for all. If we choose the path to fulfill the extraordinary promise of human rights, we can be in control and chart the destiny of humanity. We have no other option.

The words "human rights" are in our daily vocabulary. They exist mostly as a litany of civil and political violations. But, they can also be understood as a positive and powerful tool for action that offers a unique strategy for human, economic, cultural and societal development. FDR spoke of freedom from fear and freedom from want. He said that necessitous men and women cannot be free. This moral and political insight laid the infrastructure for the International Bill of Human Rights. This Bill included the UDHR, and the two Covenants: one on Political & Civil Human Rights (ICCPR), and the other on Economic Social & Cultural Human Rights (IESCR). The name "covenants" connotes a biblical term that speaks to a moral authority, acknowledging the sanctity of life. (It is important to note that in many countries around the world, those that have ratified Human Rights Covenants and Conventions placed these instruments on par with the legal authority of their constitution. Not in the U.S.)

Throughout human history of wars, famine, humiliation and intolerance come great moments of transcendence that liberate us and allow us to walk away from slavery towards freedom; endowing us with real, vital and meaningful hope and tools for action. It is our responsibility to recognize and capture these magical moments and do all we can to have people know the meaning of human rights in their lives. (Imposed ignorance is a human rights violation.) When they learn they reinvent their lives, adding a vibrant link to the chain of humanity's expectations for dignity, equality and life without discrimination.

These moments of transcendence, such as the drafting of the UDHR, gave the United Nations its overarching purpose and radiated forcefully the vision for economic and social justice. It was articulated by Member States into human rights norms and standards relevant to the lives of all women, men, youth and children of all places, cultures and religions. During the years, these were framed as Conventions on the elimination of racism, on the human rights of women and of children, of migrants and recently the disabled.

Many of us who have gained this insight acknowledge our social responsibility and take control of the future to become agents of change. If the community knew human rights directly and without bias, the discussions taking place now would have been moot. Sadly, most people do not know about the many important moral, political and legal benefits Human Rights puts in our hands to claim. (Those working to bring about genuine health care reform for the benefit of all people need to speak of access to health care and other elements of good health as a human right for which we have no other humanely valid option.)

More than 60 years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt, joined by men and women from more than 80 countries, gave the world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a "gift" that meant to remove the chains of colonialism, and to never again have humanity experience genocide. The Declaration delivered called for democracy to be a delivery system of human rights-- moving charity to dignity.

The human rights framework encompasses the best of Socialism and Democracy, giving us a vibrant political and moral way to conduct our lives with the protection of human rights laws. It makes so much sense.

It is a painful wonder to me why many working to change the world do not use this powerful tool for action. Is it because many international human rights organizations focus mostly on violations and do not bring a comprehensive message to all of us who yearn to realize our hopes and expectations embedded in the rich and powerful human rights agenda? (Indeed economic colonialism is alive and thriving, and genocide did not vanish. There is much to be cynical about. This, fortunately, does not prevent me from being a fanatic about human rights.)

Having facilitated programs in 60 countries for the last 20 years, I find it so gratifying and amazing how people develop systemic analysis and critical thinking when introduced to human rights as a way of life. Can we do it in the U.S.? People spontaneously distinguish symptoms and causes. Honest discussions between women and men about patriarchy and the causes of human rights violations lead to critical thinking and changing attitudes and behavior necessary for sustained realization of human rights. (The good news is that the City Council of Washington, DC, following a learning program throughout the educational system, and now entering the larger community, has declared Washington, DC a Human Rights City.)

Human Rights are the banks of the river where life can flow freely, and when the floods threaten us, people who know human rights strengthen the banks, avoiding the floods. A grassroots movement sharing the knowledge of human rights will strengthen the banks of the river.

There is no other option!

Shulamith Koenig is the Founding President, PDHRE, People's Movement for Human Rights Learning

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