The 15th Annual International Human Rights Summit: Bringing Human Rights to Life
On July 6th, I attended the second day of the 15th Annual International Human Rights Summit 2018. I happened to learn about this conference by chance after a quick “What to do in NYC for the month of July” search on google. After reading the short event description on Eventbrite, I signed up and waited for a confirmation email – not knowing for sure what I had signed up for. As a Global Liberal Studies major with a concentration in politics, rights, and development, the idea of working in the human rights field, as a volunteer, as an activist, or as a lawyer has always interested me. However, reading the biographies of wonderful people working for non-governmental organizations (NGO) and intergovernmental organizations (IGO), such as the United Nations, and seeing how they have each paved their own paths towards the advancement of human rights and the global society as a whole, while allowing their different professional and personal backgrounds to guide and influence the specific angle they pursue, I have had a hard time figuring out how to embark on my own journey of helping people realize their potential to make those 30 abstract human rights written in the declaration, concrete.
History of Youth for Human Rights
The Annual International Human Rights Summit is a three-day event organized by Youth for Human Rights International (YFHR), a nonprofit organization founded in 2001 by Dr. Mary Shuttleworth. Born and raised in apartheid South Africa, Dr. Shuttleworth’s childhood experiences in the face of discrimination and human rights violations paint a clear picture as to why she has dedicated 17 years of her life (and counting) to the advancement of human rights education as a long-term solution to improve the social, economic, and political conditions that lead to the devastation of humanity.
Why is there a need for human right education?
When one thinks of human rights, in most cases, they are perceived as a set of beautiful abstract words written in the form of a declaration on a piece of paper. The absence of specificities as to how each article will be implemented is troubling for people and States alike because the abstractness is likely to be seen as idealistic and out of our immediate reach. On one hand, the vagueness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is frustrating because it’s supposed to redress the grievances of human lives while on the other hand, the abstractness of the UDHR is influenced by its non-binding nature. It would be extremely difficult to convince every single UN-member country to ratify a detailed UDHR with a strict set of Do’s and Don’ts because of the diverse makeup of the UN member-countries such as differing cultural, political, and economic beliefs and practices. Therefore, the drafters of the UDHR found it to be more efficient to steer clear of each State’s sovereignty by creating a series of rights without going into specifics of how they must be interpreted and implemented.
Nevertheless, the intangible nature of the UDHR lends itself to yet another less encouraging possibility-the fact that people’s lack of basic human rights, as well as the violation of human rights, may stem from the victims and the violators not knowing that 30 specific human rights not only exist but are also protected by the law (Article 8 of the UDHR).
To address the lack of accessibility to a human rights education, YFHR hosts annual Human Rights Summits that bring together youth delegates from all around the world to discuss local issues and share how each of them use human rights education to impart the knowledge to their own communities, which then empowers them to remedy local issues and injustices by themselves.
Highlights of the Human Rights Summit
To start off with what would turn out to be an incredibly inspiring conference, keynote speaker H.E. Luis Almagro, the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States and previously the Foreign Minister of Uruguay from 2010 until March 2015, ignited the fervor within each youth delegate, fellow official, advocate, and general attendee with a simple yet powerful message, “We must do more” and then shared the following insights. “We live in a world that breathes injustice, yet few cough in disapproval.” When we decide to take the side of human rights, the right side, we must remember to be patient, remember to use a “human beings lens,” and remember why we do what we do every day – “People tend to get distracted by the branches and forget to pay attention to the roots.”
As I sat in the UN’s Economic and Social Council Chamber, listening to speech after speech, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the stories of the youth delegates and advocates who have embarked upon their own journeys in helping people bring their human rights to life. What particularly struck me was how nuanced these journeys had been and continue to be with each of them looking at the role of human rights education from different angles. For example, Christopher King, a charismatic innovator and the grandson of the late B.B King, launched The Gentlemen’s Course, a non-profit organization that teaches youth social and professional etiquette. At its core, The Gentlemen’s Course is a wonderful example of the intersectionality between human rights advocacy and the professional/personal world. Christopher King found a way to use his love for and career in fashion to make the human right to a good livelihood more tangible. In this case, the opportunity to learn how to assert oneself in a formal social setting (i.e. knowing what silverware to use at a formal dinner) proves to be a motivational tool that kids, teenagers, and adults can use to not only feel more empowered but to increase their social and professional connectivity as well.
Mohammad Dawood Safi, a youth delegate representing Afghanistan, shared a more tragic story that inevitably pushed him to speak up against a corrupt educational system that once cost him his childhood friend’s life. During his pre-teen years, Mohammad learned that his friend had died in a suicide bombing – he was the suicide bomber. After years of wanting to understand why his friend would be driven to such an inhumane action, Mohammad discovered that the education system for refugees was specifically created to make extremists out of brainwashed refugees. As his voice wavered with equal parts of anger, love, and a hunger for justice, Mohammed leaned into the mike and explained that while kids in a normal public school were learning that 2+2 = 4, his friend was solving math problems like these: If you kill three out of five infidels, how many are left to kill? and 1 bullet + 2 bullets = 3 bullets. Hearing Mohammed utter these words, which rung with nostalgia for a friendship lost too soon but were filled with hope for a just future for the refugees of today and tomorrow, I realized that the responding wave of gasps in disbelief that took over the whole chamber for the next ten seconds pulled many, including me, back into a reality that many don’t pay attention to until it comes knocking at their doors: A violation of human rights can happen anywhere and to anyone, and that anyone can be a friend, a neighbor, a family member or even you and me.
In a world that breathes injustice from left to right to up and down, it can seem nearly impossible to be the one who offers an abstract human rights lens to give everyone the ability to see the harm that they are passively or unknowingly letting exist. However, in a community, school, or social group that breathes injustice, it’s possible (but not easy because a necessary fight will never be easy) to use one’s unique perspective of the human rights lens to be the disapproving voice that makes the intangible, tangible and teaches others how to do so as well.