In Praise of Human Rights

In honour of Human Rights Day, 10 December.

“…What is loved endures…” (J. Michael Straczynski).

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

10 December each year marks the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document compiled by many people including possibly LGBT-aligned Eleanor Roosevelt. It has shaped much of our modern world with a secular humanist framework against which some modern forces of religious intolerance are actively agitating.

We should pause every day to commemorate our human rights and recommit ourselves to protecting and enacting these precepts. Most emphatically, we should celebrate the human rights activism that is undertaken by many people around the world.

I pay homage to the activism of Ruth Coker Burks*, who, back in the days before modern medications turned HIV into a largely manageable medical condition, worked selflessly to help those afflicted with AIDS. She recalls her first AIDS patient, a young man dying alone in hospital after being abandoned by family, and whose pleas for his mother were being ignored by nursing staff. When she – a visitor to the hospital and a total stranger – went into his room to comfort him, he had an emotional reaction:

“”Oh Mama, I knew you’d come,” he said, in that small, reaching voice. I was so confused that I just stood there, my feet glued to the floor. Then he started to cry…
…But then he tried to reach his hand out to me. I couldn’t not take his hand in mine.
“Mama,” he said again.
“Yes,” I said, squeezing his hand gently, “I’m here.”
(“All The Young Men ”, by Ruth Coker Burks)

I also celebrate the courage of Philonise Floyd and Judy Shepherd and Ziauddin Yousafzai and Rebiya Kadeer and Mordechai Vanunu and Nelson Mandela and many others who seek to turn their personal tragedies or tribulations into a larger triumph for the human rights of others.

I pay testimony to those who look beyond their own civil rights and seek to promote wider human rights, such as those activists who look beyond Marriage Equality in their own country and seek to assist LGBTQIA+ people who face much harsher conditions in Africa or Russia or across the Commonwealth or elsewhere.

Human rights are not simply about whether or not people should feel compelled to wear face masks in order to protect themselves and others from a viral pandemic (that is not human rights, that is basic human decency); nor is it about granting special rights to an elite group and allowing them to discriminate against others. Human rights is about recognising the equality of all people: our right to life, to joy, to kindness and to dignity, to be treated as part of our human family. Sascha Sagan encapsulates this in her recent book:

“Being alive was presented to me as profoundly beautiful and staggeringly unlikely, a sacred miracle of random chance. My parents taught me that the universe is enormous and we humans are tiny beings who get to live on an out-of-the-way planet for a blink of an eye. And they taught me that, as they once wrote, “for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love”.”
(“For Small Creatures Such As We ”, by Sasha Sagan, p. 5)

We do not need to seek meaning or purpose in esoteric, supernatural or external sources. Our search ends much closer to home: in our common humanity. In our human quest for significance, we can find no greater purpose than to enrich the lives of others; anyone seeking immortality should ponder how fighting for human rights leaves a legacy that endures.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

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(*My study of HIV/AIDS has been connected to a PhD study. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.)

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