GYC Village

blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff

Human Rights Day in the USA

Occupy Wall Street -- Did they articulate the movement as a Human Rights movement? Should they have?

Occupy Wall Street — Has it been articulated as a Human Rights movement? By the movement itself? Or by the media?

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 (

EDITOR’s NOTE: This piece is complemented well by various other blogs on and GYC’s intercultural blogging for human rights page at the Open Society’s

Many thanks to Marie Berry (GYC Alumna and Board Member) for editorial assistance.


5 comments on “Human Rights Day in the USA

  1. Anonymous
    December 10, 2012

    Point well taken,,,we are so quick to point out the lack of human rights abroad but we need to look inwards as well

  2. Anonymous
    December 10, 2012

    These issues were ones that needed to be emphasized during my time spent in Rwanda this August. As I talked with my Rwandan peers regarding human rights issues in both Rwanda and the USA, I realized that problems Americans face today ARE Human Rights Issues. Thanks Jesse for calling attention to the fact that America also needs help pulling together its resources to address its own human rights abuses. Only then could the US be the leader the rest of the world expects us to be.

  3. globalyouthconnect
    December 10, 2012


    Dear Jesse, this is a good digest. Am now in Benin, for African Union Training, but celebrating the day with my colleagues here in Porto Novo.

    See below my thoughts on this day:

    10th of every December is an international Day of Human rights. On this particular day, people around the world most especially those involved in Human rights promotion and Defense are preoccupied by telling the whole world what are the tremendous progress their respective countries, communities and organizations have achieved in the framework of fulfilling the UDHR principles. Others are busy claiming their rights and finally there are a number of many people denouncing Human Rights violations.

    But along all those concepts, what are their meanings to a common person in Rwanda, whose freedom of expression and speech is jailed, whose participation in daily government life seems to be a dream even if it is said we are democratic? I don’t doubt that this day means nothing for him/her, unless the leaders put in their minds that enjoyment of rights is not a favor but a right. And to respect that doesn’t need a huge amount of money, or having PhD in Human Rights. It requires only a sense of humor, humanity and upholding self dignity as well as other’s dignity.

    Along this, the day should mean the consideration of population in the centre of everything, development, planning and implementation. But how many people are crying of being evicted without compensation? How
    many people are claiming of being harassed because of they don’t share the common ideas with the stakeholders? On this day, it is a time to think about people with disabilities PWDs, and from that we can reflect on their consideration in daily life where tall buildings are in place but the rate of accessibility of them by those PWDs still a issue.

    I think personally, the 10th December, this year, it should be a reflection about rights of refugees present in Rwanda from DRC, and women raped in eastern DRC and even denounce and remind the international Community to rethink about justice for all.

    In my minds it comes the situation of people in Northern Uganda, who were dispersed and the big fish has eaten their lands while they were in IDPs, nowadays who ever trying to claim it, the answer is being killed, tortured or beaten to disabled. The world is full of injustice, inequality and the stakeholders claim that it is because the earth is small compared to the increasing number of Population,
    the statement to which I totally disagree.

    As young people, let us now think about this once again, and let not being corrupted by those old minds to inherit them will give space for injustice, Human rights violation, discrimination and selfishness. We
    can change the world but let this change start in our minds to spread across the family and then the whole world.

    I wish this day is an opportunity for the governments to reflect on their role in promoting right to education, right to life, right civil and political life the reasons being inclusion of common person in all concepts so that a human rights based approach HRBA should not be regarded as a dream but a reality.

    Dr AKINTIJE SIMBA Calliope
    Human Right Activist
    GYC Alumni 2007
    Program Director, LIPRODHOR (the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights)

  4. Anonymous
    December 20, 2012

    i think its important to think about the way we frame things, how we name different issues–like how the media portrays crimes in this country or violations of “civil rights” vs. “human rights”. I think if the media and in every day conversation if we did start to use the term “human rights” and frame our experiences and understanding of what is going on in our society and our communities, this would make a difference. If we started to see these violations as connected with other global violations and issues that are faced in many countries, then it would give us a way to fight against such violations and show how hypocritical we are in this country so much of the time.

  5. Celine
    December 20, 2012

    i think this discussion is really interesting and important. the way we word things and frame experiences informs and shapes our understanding of them. rather than using the term “civil rights”, we could say “human rights”. This puts the crimes and violations into a larger, more global context and reminds us that our country, our society and communities are often so hypocritical by criticizing and judging other countries, other governments for their “gross human rights’ violations”, when we have “civil rights” being violated it’s supposedly not the same thing, but if we were to frame it and look at them as actually human rights, which they are, then the conversation can shift and we can actually start to realize what a disconnect their is in our country and our communities around these issues.
    Thank you Jesse for writing this article. much appreciated your thoughts and words.

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This entry was posted on December 7, 2012 by in #HumanRightsUSA Program Posts, GYC Board and Staff Blog Posts, Human Rights.

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