U.N Commissioner for Human Rights, 1997-20021
The world came together after the Second World War to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights out of respect for the dignity of each human being. Article 1 states that every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights. Article 29 reminds people that everyone has duties to the community, without which we don’t reach the full expression of our personality.
During the U.N. Millennium Assembly, when the largest-ever opinion poll was carried out, the results showed that an overwhelming majority of people all over the world identified the need for greater protection of human rights as their top priority. September 11 did not, in fact, change much in the lives of most people on the planet. Human insecurity was already a daily reality for the hundreds of millions who live in absolute poverty or in zones of conflict, and it remains so. For these people insecurity is not equated with where a terrorist may strike, but instead with where tomorrow’s only meal may come from. For women, gender is itself a risk factor threatening their security because of the secret violence of household abuse, the private oppression.
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his or her country. The world needs to be reminded that every government accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Author and former child soldier, Sierra Leone2
My life today is complex. It is a life in three parts: my life before the war, my life during the war, and my life after the war. All three aspects have shaped me and my views. They make me what I am, whether I like it or not. I have come to know what it means to have peace, because I have experienced the lack of it and what that does to your spirit.
Before the war, I remember the day-to-day life of going to school and, on the way back, playing football and swimming. For me, from a very early age, there was an appreciation for life itself all around me. There was care from all of our community, not just from my immediate family. War changed all that so quickly, suddenly, and horribly, but the early years grounded me and really helped me later.
Human rights are about recognizing human dignity. When people are unwilling to pay attention when others are abused or killed, this brings out the worst in everyone and eventually affects society. I have seen the suffering that happens when they are disregarded. I have seen people lose the strength to even dream. My own hope is that I can help make people around the world aware so that no one turns a blind eye when terrible things happen. Our common humanity and human rights are more important than our nationality or socioeconomic status. Once we all know that, it will ground how we treat each other and respect each other.
Doctor and human rights activist, Zimbabwe3
My family home was always very political. One of my earliest memories was when Ian Smith became prime minister [of former Rhodesia in 1965]. My father Daniel was a leading nationalist and had been in prison since 1959, and he became an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. In 1969 he was the longest-serving political prisoner in the world, and by then he had spent 10 years in prison without a trial or conviction. Amnesty International offered to help, and he asked them to help with our education. In 1969 an Amnesty International group in Scandinavia arranged for me and my sister to be educated abroad, so I came to the United Kingdom. My sister’s passport was blocked, but she eventually went to school in Botswana.
When I was in medical school, the World Health Organisation slogan was health for all by the year 2000, and in the early 1980s, there was much talk in Zimbabwe about a people-centered health system. But this faded. In 2000, when violence erupted as the government started to torture and beat people up, the role of health professionals began to be discussed again. We set up Doctors for Human Rights in Zimbabwe in 2002. It was extremely difficult to be openly associated with what we were doing, but we persisted. Doctors for Human Rights has been able to link with other activists regionally and globally, and I hope we will keep the profile of health and human rights on the agenda.
Executive Director, Amnesty International USA
Like many young people of the time, I began my adult life with a desire to change an unbearably unjust world. That passion led me into a number of self-described revolutionary organizations, none of which succeeded and some of which eventually became the opposite of the ideals they proclaimed. Exhausted by the internecine warfare of radical politics and in need of a paying job, I started working with Amnesty International in 1976. There I learned of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that set forth what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “human rights revolution.” It is a revolution that, unlike almost any other, has been undeniably positive. It is a revolution that continues around the world.
The governments that declared the principle that every person has rights rooted in the very fact of existence— rights that cannot be violated by anyone for any reason—almost certainly had no idea what they would unleash. With this document, they set in motion a global movement that would hold every government, organization and person accountable to the same universal standards of respect for dignity and freedom.
Over the past six decades, that movement has demonstrated it can literally open prison doors, shut down torture and execution chambers, advance economic and social justice, tear down walls and lead to the fall of even the most enduring tyrannies. The UDHR gave humanity a powerful nonviolent weapon: a set of universal values embodied in international law. Sixty years ago, it was an invitation to people all over the world to gather behind it and give force to the rights it proclaims. The invitation still stands.
1Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, is the founder of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative and was the 2004 recipient of Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award.
2Ismael Beah's memior, A Long Way Gone, details his experience as a child soldier during the Sierra Leone civil war.
3Farai Madzimbamuto is a doctor and human rights activist in Zimbabwe.