A blog produced with content from Global Youth Connect's program participants, alumni, staff and partners
By: Jesse Hawkes
December 10th is UN Human Rights Day, but when you hear the phrase “human rights violations,” what comes to mind? An image of civilians in Syria? Stories about the ongoing rape of women in Congo? A hungry child in a foreign desert? Or do you think about a kid in Queens who often goes hungry? Or a veteran in Colorado who is in need of medical treatment and a permanent home? Or an undocumented woman in upstate NY who was raped by her supervisor but who doesn’t report it to authorities for fear of being deported? The fact is, even though many situations abroad are more severe than in the USA, violations of human rights happen often in the US, and yet we as a nation — our public, our government, and especially our media — fail to recognize them as “human rights violations.” This needs to change, both for progress at home and also for progress abroad.
The human rights framework championed by the United Nations, and enshrined in numerous international human rights laws, establishes that all people regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, age, sexual orientation, class, or any other form of difference, have certain rights simply because they were born. It is an inspirational and unifying concept if used to its fullest capacity. Not recognizing our social ills in the US as human rights challenges hinders our ability to band together and correct them.
Our government can certainly help turn up the volume on human rights in the USA by ratifying all major instruments of international human rights law. We heard this week that our Senate shamefully failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In addition, the US is the only UN member country besides Somalia, yes only Somalia, which has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In my opinion, the best way to get Americans to use the human rights framework here at home is to increase the number of media stories that explicitly refer to “human rights” in the context of the US. When was the last time we saw a media story that described child hunger in the US as a “human rights” issue? A free press doesn’t need to wait for government permission to talk more candidly about how 15 million children living below the poverty level in the US is not just a fact but also “a human rights violation according to international law.”
It would also help if the media were to recognize more frequently the organizations in the US that are explicitly talking about human rights at home, many of which we visited in Global Youth Connect’s Human Rights in the USA Program this summer (the Urban Justice Center’s Human Rights Project, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, Human Right’s Watch’s domestic work on immigration, even the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who’s Executive Director spoke passionately to our youth about the fact that wealth disparity is a huge human rights challenge in the USA).
Shining a spotlight on human rights in the US will also increase our standing globally as a standard bearer of human rights. The US government, our civil society, and our media, are all heavily involved in the affairs of other nations, often talking about other nations’ human rights records (many of which are, on the whole, much worse than ours). But if we want to be taken as seriously as possible, we need to start speaking more about human rights when we talk about ourselves.
Through my work with Global Youth Connect, I have had an opportunity to see these issues through the eyes of youth from around the world. In Rwanda, a theme that often emerges in our human rights workshops is why Rwandan youth should care about a US critique of the Rwandan government’s human rights record when the US hasn’t ratified all international human rights treaties itself. This past summer, the international youth who came to our USA program – like Rose, a theatre for social change practitioner from Rwanda, Tamuz who has been doing her Israeli national service at an office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, and Ameed from Palestine who wishes to become a medical doctor for human rights – were shocked to discover the extent of homelessness, hunger, and inequality in the US. They, along with their US peers, were also curious as to why the tremendous efforts being put forth in the US to address these problems aren’t being framed by the media and the public as “protecting human rights in America.”
On this Human Rights Day, let’s consider changing our tune. The US, often touted as an example to the world, is not fully protecting human rights at home and not fully is not good enough, both in the eyes of many Americans and in the eyes of those around the world. It is time for our media, our government, and we citizens to use the human rights framework right here at home, for all humanity’s sake.
Jesse Hawkes (social activist, theatre artist, and youth development programmer) is the Executive Director of Global Youth Connect (www.globalyouthconnect.org).
EDITOR’s NOTE: This piece is complemented well by various other blogs on gycvillage.org and GYC’s intercultural blogging for human rights page at the Open Society’s youthpolicy.org/interculturalblogging
Many thanks to Marie Berry (GYC Alumna and Board Member) for editorial assistance.