What are human rights?
Simply said, human rights are the rights we have because we are human. But what are rights? What does it mean to be human? What, if anything, makes someone less than human and therefore less deserving of rights (or deserving of less rights than others)? As humans, people have a certain set of rights, but as members of certain groups, they are denied these rights.
How do we get them?
In theory, we (should) already have them. In practice, however, there are people who are denied their human rights. LGBT people, for example, are systematically denied rights at a local, state, regional, national, and international levels throughout the world.
People often point to documents that use phrases like “all men are created equal,” a famous line from the United States Declaration of Independence, to argue for equal rights. It must be noted, however, that by all men, they meant rich, white, propertied men. African Americans were property, and women were barely above their status. American Indians were simply savages. Here in the U.S., we have shaped our understanding of the phrase over time, expanding it to include people. However, as it did not include everyone then, it still does not include everyone now. So how do those left out get included?
There are various ways, all interconnected and time consuming. The major methods are legal and social change, though each requires the other, creating a chicken-and-egg which comes first debate among many. For historical examples, one can turn to the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, and so on. Women’s suffrage, for example, may have given women the right to vote, however, it did not make them socially equal, as evidenced by the feminist movement that followed. However, there was social progress before the 19th amendment which ultimately resulted in the push for ratification. Similarly, the 19th amendment was a huge step towards women’s equality. Both necessary, neither easy.
Where do we go from here?
Activism, individually and organizationally, drives the human rights movement as well as various social movements within and beyond. The definition of activism changes from person to person (as do most things), and can be anything from protesting loudly in the street to writing an essay or a report to donating to an organization. The important thing is to continue working toward positive change, as people have done for a long time, whether they ever called themselves activists or not. The efforts of dedicated individuals and groups have changed history and will continue to do so.
These musings are brief, have been on my mind for some time in various forms, and will remain central to my thinking, research, and activities. I have worked through them in previous essays and will certainly do so again and again in the future, ever developing ideas and perspectives.
Finally, I leave you with the wise words of two great minds:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.—Margaret Mead
Be the change you wish to see in the world.—Mahatma Gandhi