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International Human Rights Day 2020: Lessons from a pandemic

10 December 2020

December 10th marks the anniversary of the day that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nearly three-quarters of a century ago in 1948, now commemorated annually as International Human Rights Day. It serves as a reminder that everyone – regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status – has rights.

Human rights are for all

International Human Rights Day also underscores the notion that human rights are, or at least should be, relevant to every person. No matter where you live, no matter what your background is, human rights can make a positive difference in your life. Equally, and very unfortunately, anyone can fall victim to those rights being denied. Yet, anyone and everyone can also take a stand to defend those rights.

COVID-19 shows just how much rights matter

This year’s anniversary is particularly poignant as the world faces the unprecedented challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while this year has pushed us to our limits – and in far too many tragic cases, beyond – it has also brought human rights closer to home.

Despite restrictions, people the world over have raised their collective voices in support of human rights, in demanding the respect of their fundamental freedoms.

The pandemic also led to the manifestation of an ideal that many in the human rights community have long called for, but perhaps feared was out of reach: solidarity.

We came together as a community of humankind. We showed concern and care for each other. We came together, alone, to make sure that we could have a day in the future to fully re-embrace our rights – and each other.

Protesting in defense of rights continues despite the pandemic

2020 also saw some of the most impactful and inspiring movements for change:

Starting already on 1 January with protests in Hong Kong against restrictive laws imposed by China, followed by Mexico’s “Day Without Us” protest against gender-based violence, and protests calling for reform of the government and the monarchy in Thailand.

Black Lives Matter protests and calls for police reform in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others in the United States – outcries which were subsequently echoed around the world.

Protests in India demanding justice after the brutal gang rape and murder of a young girl from Hathras; #EndSARS demonstrations against policy brutality in Nigeria; the first ‘virtual’ Day of Silence for LGBTQI rights and the ‘virtual’ Climate Strike; the “Women’s Strike” in Poland; and the ongoing post-election protests in Belarus.

These and the many other protests throughout 2020 are indicative of the groundswell of people the world over reclaiming civic space, both in-person and online, to defend their rights.

What does the future hold for human rights in a post-COVID-19 era?

The theme for this year’s International Human Rights Day is “Recover Better: Stand Up for Human Rights,” and we have likely all spent these past months wondering what the future will hold.

While far too many of the 2020 protests have been met with brutal force by national police and military authorities, this multitude of demonstrations of the power of people to engage in determining the future direction of their communities gives hope that when this pandemic is behind us, we will indeed #RecoverBetter.

Veteran human rights activist, Peter Tatchell, once said, “While all progressive change comes about through collective action, all successful change must be for the sake of the individual.”

2020 has shown us the steadfastness of individuals and communities who have consistently pushed back at efforts to arbitrarily limit fundamental freedoms in solidarity with, and for the sake of, one another.

Will we come back stronger? This solidarity has me believing we will.

By Kirsten Meersschaert, Programme Manager Human Rights Defence