December 10th is Human Rights Day

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR proclaims the inalienable rights we all share as human beings, regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.  The UDHR can be read here:

Human Rights Day is observed annually on December 10 and this year’s theme is Equality – Reducing Inequalities, Advancing Human Rights.  This theme relates to Article 1 of the UDHR which states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

Magna Carta (Great Charter) agreed by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215. Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG

From England’s Magna Carta to the USA’s Declaration of Independence to France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, people have tried to codify and define the rights all human beings share, for their own citizens.  The UDHR is unique in its universality – it covers all people wherever they live or come from.

(Anna) Eleanor Roosevelt, American humanitarian. Wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Chairman UN Human Rights Commission 1947-51 and US representative at General Assembly 1946. Photo: Photo12/UIG

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was the driving force behind the creation and adoption of the UDHR.  While the UDHR may be her legacy, Roosevelt was a revered humanitarian for most of her life, fighting for equal and civil rights, as well as workers’ rights during the depression.

Photograph of Mahatma Gandhi being greeted by a group of female textile workers during a visit to Darwen Lancashire. Dated 1931. Photo: Photo12/UIG

Our shared history includes many champions of humanity.  Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) is widely recognized as one of the twentieth century’s most important and selfless leaders. Gandhi pioneered and practiced the principle of Satyagraha—resistance to tyranny through mass nonviolent civil disobedience. This principle would later inspire other non-violent human rights movements across the globe.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses the crowd on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington. 8/28/1963. Photo: GG Vintage Images/UIG

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States was led by Martin Luther King, Jr., (1929-1968) who first attracted national attention in 1955 when he and other civil rights activists, including the heroic Rosa Parks, were arrested after leading a boycott of a Montgomery, Alabama, transportation company for requiring nonwhites surrender their seats to whites and stand or sit at the back of the bus. Over the following decade, King organized nonviolent, mass demonstrations to protest racial discrimination and to demand civil rights legislation to protect the rights of African Americans. These demonstrations culminated in the 1963 March on Washington, which attracted more than 250,000 protestors.  It was during this demonstration that MLK delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech in which he envisioned a world where people would “….not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Nelson Mandela President of South Africa 1994-1998 addressing the UN General Assembly. Photo: Photo12/UIG

Nearly 30 years after MLK won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) would receive the same honor, in 1993.  Mandela actively worked to abolish the apartheid policies of South Africa’s ruling National Party. These policies subjugated black South Africans as second-class citizens, unworthy of the same rights enjoyed by white citizens.  Mandela would serve 27 years in prison for sedition, treason and sabotage.  Upon his release in 1990, Mandela would lead the African National Congress to outlaw apartheid and establish equal rights for all people in South Africa.

Cesar Chavez, 1927-1993, Labor Leader and Civil Rights Activist, Head and Shoulders Portrait, photograph by Marion S. Trikosko, April 1979. Photo: Circa Images/UIG

Human rights encompass many ideals, including those that support workers.  Cesar Chávez (1927-1993) was another human rights champion who dedicated his life to winning recognition for the rights of agricultural workers.  Chavez inspired workers to organize to ensure rights for each other.  The result was the formation of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers.

Nobel prize winner Muhammad Yunus, founder of he Grameen Bank. Photo: Godong/UIG

Another Nobelist known for their humanitarian work is Muhammad Yunus (born 1940).  Yunus founded Grameen Bank in 1983 to provide micro-credit loans to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans.  Yunus’ belief that credit is a fundamental right has helped millions or people to escape poverty. 

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1753

Philosophers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Paine theorized on the inalienable rights all humans are entitled to.  Their ideas and opinions inspired governments to respect the rights of their people.  The actions of Roosevelt, Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, Chavez, Yunus and many others helped inspire people worldwide to respect and fight for human rights for all.

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