In the wake of World War II, as the extent of Nazi atrocities came to light, many nations of the world came together to articulate the basic rights of all human beings. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, with the support of the United States. At its core is the notion that we are all born free and equal in dignity and rights, and that we are entitled to fairness and justice regardless of our differences. The rights to equal protection, freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of expression, freedom from discrimination, freedom from torture and inhumane treatment, and freedom to seek asylum from persecution are among those embraced by the declaration's terms.
These rights are considered inherent and inalienable – neither granted to us by governments nor removable by governments, but integral to being human.
I first celebrated Human Rights Day – December 10 – nearly 35 years ago, when I joined a candlelight vigil in the Fairbanks ice fog at 40 below with fellow members of the local chapter of Amnesty International, the human rights organization. For a number of years following, I stood vigil at similar events in Anchorage. It always felt impossible at those times to imagine the tragedies that befell so many fellow citizens of this world at the hands of their own governments. It felt incomprehensible that so many suffered because of their religion or politics, their race or ethnicity, their nationality or language, their gender or sexual orientation.
How could one respond meaningfully to the death squads, the ethnic cleansings, or the genocides? How could one begin to counteract the countless lesser-known evils carried out against their citizens by despots around the globe? Extrajudicial killings. Torture. Imprisonment for one's ideas or beliefs. The magnitude of inhumane behavior was overwhelming, and it was always hard, gathered around our tiny flames, to feel that we were making any difference at all. Yet somehow, holding a candle in far away Alaska seemed like an important gesture, a way to stand up for victims who could not stand up for themselves. Bearing witness seemed the least we could do.
Today, as the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approaches, threats to human rights seem as great as ever, both at home and abroad. All around us, we hear the drumbeat of hatred and division. We see vulnerable people threatened and victimized because of who they are, and people who stand up for them marginalized, arrested, or worse. We see world leaders championing or ignoring atrocities instead of condemning them. We see the very fabric of the world community being pulled and torn, creating a climate of chaos and upheaval in which human rights abuse can take root and thrive.
It's heartbreaking, and hard not to feel caught in a deep and dark undertow where personal action is futile. But what I learned over all those years standing vigil in the cold is that acts of conscience matter. As individuals, we may have little power to end human rights abuse or demand accountability for governments that engage in it. But as a community of concerned citizens, we can help ensure that our own city, state and nation respect and defend fundamental rights and honor the limits of governmental power. We can raise our voices to lift human dignity, and call out those who demand rights for themselves while diminishing the rights of others. We can show support for those among us who work every day to protect and defend basic freedoms and make great positive impact in people's lives. And perhaps most importantly, we can give ourselves hope that we live in a society that is able to face its challenges with compassion and good will, not rancor and malevolence.
This year, concerned Alaskans will once again gather to light candles and raise our collective voices to demand respect for human rights both near and far. Sponsored by the Alaska Institute for Justice and co-sponsored by a dozen other local organizations, the Human Rights Day Vigil will take place on Sunday, December 10, from 2 p.m.-3 p.m. at Anchorage Town Square. We will once again share messages of tolerance and mutual respect, and urge our leaders to honor the human rights principles that our nation has long endorsed. Following the vigil, we will gather nearby to warm up, make candles, and write postcards to honor the occasion.
The late Nelson Mandela warned that "to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity."
On Dec. 10, we can stand together for our common humanity. Please join us.
Barbara Hood is volunteer coordinator of the Alaska Institute for Justice's Human Rights Day Vigil. She is a former Alaska area coordinator for Amnesty International USA.
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