Reflection and Call to Action for International Human Rights Day

by Sophie Trist



On December 10, the world will celebrate International Human Rights Day, marking seventy-two years since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. International Human Rights Day is an opportunity to simultaneously reflect on how far we have come on our journey toward a world free from aggressive violence and a call to action to continue this vital work. This is a day to look back at our successes, take a deep breath, and prepare to keep fighting for a society that recognizes human rights for all human beings.


The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a shadow over 2020, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions falling into poverty. However, the world has taken several steps forward in the advancement of human rights despite this. In March, Spain proposed a much-needed change to its laws regarding sexual violence, to define rape explicitly as sex without consent. This is a major step forward in the global movement to eliminate sexual and gender-based violence and empower survivors. Closer to home, Colorado became the twenty-second U.S. state to abolish the death penalty, recognizing that even terrible actions do not strip us of our humanity and therefore our right to life.


In June, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration could not immediately end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which offers a path to citizenship for undocumented people who arrived in the U.S. as children. This ruling protects these young people from facing deportation to unfamiliar countries where they could face violence.


In October, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal reversed a eugenic abortion exception that allowed preborn children with disabilities to be killed. The head of the Tribunal, Julia Przylebska, said that “(A provision which) legalises eugenic practices in the field of the right to life of an unborn child and makes the right to life of an unborn child dependent on his or her health ... is inconsistent ... with the constitution.”


Despite these victories, we still have work to do to advance human rights from womb to tomb. The Chinese government is detaining a million Uyghur Muslims in brutal, inhumane concentration camps in Xinjiang, subjecting them to forced labor and involuntary sterilizations and abortions. While abortion data for 2020 is not yet available, it is certain that hundreds of thousands of unborn children have lost their lives around the world this year. With Argentina now taking steps to legalize the killing of the unborn, we must keep shouting from the rooftops that human rights cannot be gained at the expense of other humans.


Since resuming federal executions after a seventeen-year hiatus, the Trump administration has executed eight prisoners in rapid succession. On International Human Rights Day, the administration plans to mock human dignity by executing Brandon Bernard, who was convicted at age eighteen. Brandon did not play a leading role in the crime and has shown twenty years of rehabilitation, reaching out to at-risk youth to urge them to choose nonviolent lives. No federal prisoners have been executed in a lame-duck period in over a century; in a year that has already seen so much death, the pace of these executions is abhorrent. A coalition of former law enforcement officials has joined civil rights groups in calling on the administration to stop killing its citizens in these final weeks.


On International Human Rights Day, I keep in mind the famous Theodore Parker quote: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” On this day and every day, I hope for and work toward a world in which human rights are truly inalienable, a world that respects the life and dignity of the unborn child, the sexual assault survivor, the refugee, the prisoner, and the elderly, sick, or disabled person equally. International Human Rights Day is the perfect opportunity to give thanks for what has been done and prepare for what is left to do to tear down the systems of oppression that dehumanize us, to envision a world free from aggressive violence that has never been but may still be.


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