Human Rights Day turns a sprightly 65 years old today. Established to commemorate the day on which the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this annual celebration of all things #humanrights is showing no sign of slowing down. Some of its longevity may simply be out of necessity, as in the seven decades since the founding of the United Nations, we have not made as much progress as we might have hoped in "reaffirming faith in the dignity and worth of the human person," or "practicing tolerance to live together in peace." Sigh.
Part of the problem with our stalled realization of universal human rights may be a basic misunderstanding of what human rights are, and to whom, exactly, the apply. A quick perusal of some of the nastier corners of the Twitterverse (tread carefully, friends, there be dragons) indicates that a fairly sizeable chunk of people with access to the internet seem to believe that human rights belong to a) them; and b) to people who look, speak, pray and vote like them. Everyone else is out of luck.
This is easy enough to fix, though, as I'm sure it's just a minor matter of being woefully misinformed, and not a calculated embrace of wilfull xenophobia. So, first things first: human rights are basic universal protections that you are endowed with on the basis of being human, first among them the recognition that all people are born free and equal, and have the right to live a dignified life. As to their application, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides some useful guidance in this regard, explaining in Article 2 that:
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
That's sorted, then: "everyone" seems to mean pretty much...well...everyone. You. Me. Israelis. Palestinians. Middle-aged white guys. #BlackLives. Police officers. Syrian refugees. Russian soldiers. Ukrainian rebels. Homeless people. Bankers. Polish plumbers. Migrants. Sex workers. Latin American revolutionaries. Conservatives. Liberals. Your racist uncle. The overly idealistic college student who lives next door. Teenage girls in Nigeria. Climate change deniers. Environmental activists. People who read the Daily Mail. People who--God forbid--write for the Daily Mail. It cannot be the case that human rights apply to you, but not to other people. Everyone means everyone.
So, that's the first stumbling block out of the way. But the language of the Declaration can seem a bit stilted and old-fashioned. How can we make #HumanRightsDay relevant to anyone not gliding about the gilded halls of the Palais des Nations in Geneva or UN Headquarters in New York? Easy: just explain that Human Rights Day is the perfect antidote to Trump-mania.
Unless you have been interned in Guantanamo Bay for the past 13 years, it is likely you are familiar with the entrepreneur currently embarrassing America abroad, as he attempts to upend the Republican primary. A non-exhaustive list of people he has disparaged include Muslims, women, Mexicans, the disabled, and prisoners of war, all to the delight of his rabid supporters. They appear to appreciate that a white, male, middle-aged billionaire with an American passport has the "courage" to "tell it like it is," as if there were any safer platform anywhere in the world from which to judge thy neighbor. There is a zero percent chance that he will become President, but a 100% chance that he will continue to dominate headlines in the weeks and months to come, and so he can't be ignored. Nevertheless, he is useful for illustrative purposes, because what Trump-mania is all about is fear of the "other," and this is exactly what Human Rights Day is meant to combat.
Fear of the other has been around since time immemorial, based both on evolution and the tribalism for which humans have long shown a preference. It continues apace today, not only in the United States' presidential race, but in the xenophobia that is sweeping the capitals of the European Union, the Sunni-Shia divide threatening to conflagrate the Middle East, and the enduring inability to get anyone to care about the plight of the Rohingya. Countless other examples are a click away: violence in Mali, Australia's inhumane immigration policies, or Israel's Prime Minister exhorting supporters to vote because otherwise the "Arabs" would win. We are, apparently, collectively paralyzed by fear of people who are different from us, although the biological imperatives that once drove such behavior are no longer quite as compelling.
But millions of years of evolutionary instinct cannot be undone in a day, and while we may never be able to fully get past our inherent suspicion of those who are different than us, we can take great strides to mitigate it. A good place to start is familiarizing ourselves with the tenets of the Declaration, which is a really easy step-by-step guide on how to get along with the other seven billion souls on the planet, and boils down to: if you treat me decently, I'll do the same for you. Embracing a rights-based approach just seems so much easier than instituting a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." I mean, customs and immigration lines at major American airports are already a nightmare: can you imagine how long it would take to get your baggage if we had to do mandatory Muslim checks?
This is the dirty little secret to human rights: it is totally OK if the only reason you advocate for them is out of self-interest. Every time we build literal or figurative fences to categorize people into "us" and "them," we make the world more chaotic and more dangerous. I'm going to respect your human rights, because I'd like you to respect mine, and not because I particularly like the way you act or agree with what you have to say. I'm basically just going to do it because making a commitment to treating other humans with dignity is less of an administrative hassle than "building a permanent border wall between Mexico and the United States."
So, on this Human Rights Day, embrace your fundamental human right to freedom of expression to tell The Donald that you don't think the world is quite as scary as he makes out. The good news is, if we all take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to heart, it won't be.