Human Rights Day 2016: how is the world faring?

It’s in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt that Human Rights Day 2016 will be observed with the theme “Stand up for someone’s rights today” on 10th December worldwide. The 68th commemoration marks the historic moment the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mapping out fundamental freedoms for all, something that Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered for as a driving force.

Mrs Roosevelt once said: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

The UN’s choice of theme this year comes as no coincidence in a year where conflict, hatred and extremism have gripped societies and people are fearful of where the world is headed. The UN itself reiterates: “Everywhere, it seems, anxieties are deepening. Humane values are under attack.”

The latest data from Freedom House shows that 2015 ranked the worst in a decade for freedom worldwide. This year 72 countries lost political rights and civil liberties, whilst 43 countries made gains. Freedom of expression and rule of law have made the largest shortfalls according to the research group.

Amnesty International draws similar conclusions in its 2015/16 Annual Report. Secretary General Salil Shetty warned “Your rights are in jeopardy: they are being treated with utter contempt by many governments around the world.” Amnesty monitored 160 countries in 2015 and found at least 113 countries arbitrarily limited freedom of expression and the press, 122 or more countries subjected people to torture or ill-treatment and war crimes were committed in at least 19 countries.

More people have been forcibly displaced now than in the aftermath of World War II. An average of 34,000 people were displaced every day last year, reaching a total of 65.3 million people by the end of 2015. As the Syrian civil war enters its fifth year now, Syrian refugees make up half the world’s displaced population combined with those fleeing Afghanistan and Somalia. New conflicts such as in Yemen and Burundi have contributed to the influx, but a UN study also attributed the falling rate of solutions being found for refugees as a problem.

There may be rising human rights challenges for the international community, but hopeful progress can also be found.

Whilst the ongoing crisis in Syria is now considered the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, there are people on the ground taking matters into their own hands. Since 2013 The Syria Civil Defence (SCD) has saved over 60,000 lives in rescue efforts after air strikes. Also known as the “White Helmets”, this group of around 3,000 volunteers include former bakers, engineers and carpenters who won the Right Livelihood Award 2016 last month for outstanding bravery and humanitarian engagement.

This year has also become the year Colombia achieved a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after five decades of war, costing over 220,000 lives and displacing more than six million people. After four years of negotiations with FARC, a revised peace accord was given the greenlight by Colombia’s congress last week. President Santos won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to ending one of the longest running armed insurgencies in the world.

Colombia also became the twenty-first country to legalise same-sex marriage this year, with Finland following close behind with its law coming into effect in 2017. Taiwan is likely to become the first Asian country to legalise gay marriage as social and political backing for it is growing, a bill is currently being debated in Taipei.

This month began with a shock election result in the Gambia as the smallest African nation removed President Yahya Jammeh from his twenty-two-year reign. Rights groups long scrutinised the eccentric leader for his repressive rule, which saw arrests, disappearances and torture of his critics including during the run up to this election. Whether or not President Jammeh will concede defeat is another story, having rejected the result this weekend, on the 10th December. But this is possibly the latest in a string of recent elections that have ousted “leaders for life” on the African continent.

Yahya Jammeh, President of Gambia, addresses speaks at the sixty-fourth session of the UN General Assembly in 2009

Yahya Jammeh, President of Gambia, addresses speaks at the sixty-fourth session of the UN General Assembly.

Lastly, in the run up to Human Rights Day, UN Women have begun to “Orange the World” in sixteen days of activism to spread global awareness of gender-based violence which effects one in three women, and address the inadequate funding gap to combat it. Between International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Human Rights Day, landmark buildings are lighting up orange and public events are being hosted from Serbia to Uganda. Countries such as China, Brazil, Pakistan and New Zealand have more recently introduced tougher laws addressing violence against women, and the increasing number of countries committed to end child marriage is seeing some progress in stopping the practice.

It is clear the world is far from perfect for its seven billion residents, but it is also clear from snapshots of human rights successes that change is possible. In the spirit of the former First Lady, the UN’s message this year delivers the reminder that big change can start with small action, and “it starts with each of us.”

Thumbnail Image: Human Rights Day celebrations in Paarl, South Africa 2013 | GovernmentZA

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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