Human Rights in the Circle of Life

From the day we arrive on the planet and blinking step into the sun
There’s more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done …

If I asked you to consider those words for a moment, it is quite likely the rest of the song would come to mind.  While “The Lion King” was a very influential film for me, it has nothing to do with why I chose those words to begin a discussion on Human Rights Day.  My motives, dear reader, are far more obvious.

When a child is born and lets out his first cry, what is his reality?  Young children are told they can do anything they want to, that the world is theirs to explore.  But when they get older, they become cynical as more and more often they find their effort to be wasted.  Yet, people keep going – they continue to live, to love, to laugh.  Why is that?  Try as one might, it is impossible for anyone to know everything, explore everywhere, help everyone, or understand why.  So are we all united in this sense of failure?  Are all who try to change the world – only to see thousands more innocent lives lost – dreamers with no sense of reality?  Is “The Circle of Life” a sad song?  No.  People everywhere know they share something with the rest of the world – we are all human.  We may look different, sound different, act different, think different – but we are all human.  No matter what the reality of our current situation is, we are all united through our shared humanity.  When a newborn baby lets out that first triumphant “Ready or not, world, here I am!  Now clean me and feed me and WARM!” cry from those tiny little lungs, a new human being has begun life on this planet.

Sixty-three years ago, on the tenth of December 1948, a very different cry echoed forth, heralding a new existence.  After two years of dedicated hard work the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was voted into being by the United Nations General Assembly, and for the first time in human history there existed an official, universal statement of what every human was entitled to by simply being born.  At long last, an understanding had been reached about what it meant to be human; after all, existence cannot be more clear than at birth.  For those of us born after that momentous occasion, we were born with the understanding all human beings are born free and with dignity and rights; those born in recent decades, in the “developed” world, have never had to question our entitlement to these rights – they are fundamental human rights, after all.  And while we take these rights for granted – as we should – we sometimes forget what it means to not have them.

Instead of focusing on people and places who cannot feel secure in these rights – including life – all around us today, I would like to look back at the past.  Call me a sentimental old coot, but when we forget where we came from and how we got here we are doomed to repeat our forbearers’ tragedies.  So let us take a moment and think about this auspicious day in history.

The year was 1948.  World War II had ended three years ago; people were slowly pulling their lives out of the rubble.  The first half of the twentieth century was almost over, but what hope was there for the next fifty years?  After so much fighting – first the Great War, which was supposed to be “the war to end all wars” and then another World War – who could sincerely believe it was over?  A time when “like father, like son” could easily mean a widow burying her sons; the World Wars were but a generation apart.  How could anyone sincerely believe in change when the men fighting the First World War did so to protect their sons from having to suffer like that – only to see it happen while they enlisted?  So many promises went broken, tears shed with the words “you promised to protect us!”  Individuals were not the sole receivers of this wrath, governments too were accused of ailing.  Perhaps most of all was the group of nations hat gathered in the wake of the Great War and promised the world they would work together to make sure it never happened again – but then it did.  Now, in 1948, a similar effort was made – only this time, they succeeded.

Like a phoenix rising from its own ashes, out of the devastation left by World War II came the understanding people everywhere have rights and these rights need to be recognized and protected.  It started slowly, as was to be expected, but quickly the notion of human rights grew and gained momentum.  To quote US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, “Because the human experience is universal, human rights are universal.”  With the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the idea human rights are universal became official – it became real.  The concept was now justified and supported by international agreement.  In December 1948, sixty-three years ago, humanity got its first rights.

People at the time were skeptical about how much this could really matter; after all, they suffered through two World Wars that obviously violated everyone’s rights.  As we can see, that changed and now we take them for granted.  But have we forgotten where they came from?  The rubble left by World War II has (for the most part) been cleared away as people, cities, and nations rebuilt themselves in the aftermath.  More than one generation has lived without war, not having the same dreadful fear that gripped the first half of the century.  For us, that all seems so far away, distant and long in the past.  World War II ended in the 1940s, before the “peace and love” of the 1960s, before the internet, long before terrorism was such a threat.  But was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights really all that long ago?  Numbers are just numbers; they have no real meaning.  So let me put it this way – 1948 was the year my father was born.  I am twenty-three, university graduate, still trying to start my own life – yet my father, whom I love dearly although he hates it when I mention him in my blog, was born before December 10, 1948.  Other than his birthday having passed this year (I did remember), what does that mean?

It means when my father was born he had no universal human rights.  Not just him, no one had them.  Sure, they may have had ideas about what it meant to be human and what it should entitle one to, but until the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was voted into being, none of that meant anything.  Today Universal Human Rights turns 63 – happy birthday!  Take a moment and think about any birthdays, 63 and higher, you celebrated before today.  Those people were born without the same guarantees to life and security that you were.  Remember that it took until the end of 1948 for that to happen.  For me, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is almost as old as my father – almost, but he is still older.  That is a daily reminder of how much more there is to do, and even though I will never do it all, at least I can do my part.  My wish for Human Rights Day is to make human rights a human reality.

It’s the Circle of Life, and it moves us all
Through despair and hope, through faith and love …

December 10, 1948
Human Rights became universal.  Thank you.

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