Human Rights: There Is No “Them,” Only “Us”

I’m an American, but my parents taught for Department of Defense schools overseas and I grew up mostly in Germany. Actually, West Germany, because at the time the country was divided in two. And “everybody knew” that in West Germany it was an open democracy and human rights were valued and protected, and in East Germany it was a suppressive, totalitarian communist regime that encouraged neighbors to spy on neighbors and human rights barely existed at all. That’s just the way it was and you had to accept it.

Germans at the Berlin Wall, 1989. (Photo by Sue Ream)

Except something really amazing happened in the late 1980s while I was living there. Enough people got so tired of living in a country that treated them like prisoners, and the system became so unworkable, that they began to protest. At first it was a very brave few, and then more and more until there were literally hundreds of thousands of everyday people standing on the streets, shoulder to shoulder, demanding their human rights be respected.

This was not a military intervention. It was not the United Nations or the U.S. Army or foreign governments or superheroes swooping in. It was factory workers and teachers and carpenters and grocers and barbers and housewives and sons and daughters taking time out of their busy lives to make their voices heard. It was “average,” everyday people who instinctively knew that their human rights and those of everyone around them mattered and should matter, and that living in a society that trampled on them was, at a very fundamental level, simply wrong.

There is still so much work to do in every country on earth to make our human rights known and ensure they are respected. But being aware of them is the vital first step.

And instead of things coming to some explosive culmination, the regime that had brutally repressed its own people for decades simply melted away into nothing, almost overnight. I remember watching on TV as people crossed the border through the Berlin Wall en masse. They all shared a look of stunned jubilation, as if they couldn’t quite believe that it was really happening. But it was happening. And their bravery, their willingness to stand up and put themselves in harm’s way for their convictions, was the reason why.

Photo by Max Pixel

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most comprehensive social document ever written on the subject, which was ratified at the United Nations under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt. That document describes in detail the 30 human rights that every man, woman and child on the planet has and deserves. If you go to United for Human Rights you’ll see those human rights brought to life in a series of brief, gorgeous videos that will move and inspire you.

There is still so much work to do in every country on earth to make our human rights known and ensure they are respected. But being aware of them is the vital first step. I encourage you to visit United for Human Rights and be inspired and share this knowledge with others you care about. History has shown me that everyday people standing shoulder to shoulder for what they know is right is the only way to change the world.

There is no “them.” There is only “us.”

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