On Human Rights

George Fairhurst reflects on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it's enduring significance.

The 10th of December is revered for two reasons. Firstly, it is a day for human rights. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted and has become, some 72 years later, the most translated and widely read non-religious text ever.

It's also revered because it's my birthday, obviously.

However this year marks ten years since my fascination with human rights began. What started off as me watching the Tunisian revolution has now led me down a decade of fascination with foreign affairs and human rights cases. I used to have Amnesty International reports downloaded on my phone or printed versions to pass off as work in classes, whilst I would frantically refresh any news websites for updates.

Human rights, the idea we all have the same basic expectations of life like liberty, democracy, a certain standard of living, captured my imagination in a way like no other thing could hope to.

Yet as we enter the 2020s, I find myself reflecting that a decade of being a spectator has given me such cynicism on foreign policy that I cannot bear to have a conversation about it.

Watching a foreign policy go from active (Libya) to inactive (Syria) to active again (Iraq, Libya, Syria) whilst arming aggressors (Yemen, Northern Syria) has bluntly convinced me that human rights, the most righteous cause I know of, are greeted with numbness by most people.

Foreign wars of the last decade, whether we've intervened or not, have left people either without these rights or with fewer than they had to start with. Human slavery, genocide, massacres, famine, droughts and starvation have run wild the last ten years.

A common response to these issues has been that these conflicts don't really affect us and that we should focus on our own. And I won't lie, it's a response that baffled me for years since caring about multiple things at the same time was within the realms of possibility. Yet when you look at the discourse surrounding human rights, they're seen as this cumbersome red tape rather than, well, fundamental rights that we declared everyone should have.

Indeed, to some, banging on about human rights is seen as left wing rhetoric, as we've seen by the rise of labels such as "activist lawyers". EU Citizens rights were used as a bargaining chip in early Brexit Talks, whilst some gleefully discuss being able to undo the rulings by the European Court of Justice, responsible for modern workers rights and the rights to privacy. Being from that awkward generation born in the very late 90s and coming into the workforce during zero hours contracts, or being "contractors" rather than employees: all I've really known is this discourse which implies expecting fundamental rights is the behavior of a "snowflake."

These compound my worries of a certain disdain that appears surrounding human rights, which I saw way back during my "PDF behind a planner" days. I tried in vain to argue with the disinterested people in my form room that these rights matter, and I now see the vilified by political rhetoric across the globe.

I don't write this with the aim to be depressing, more to be galvanizing.

We face a decade of fights ahead of us both at home and abroad, making sure these rights and fundamental principles which built the post war consensus aren't just ignored or greeted with a shrug.

Climate change accelerates the need for action, for soon none of us will be able to achieve a right to a quality of life if the earth we inherit is irreversibly doomed. Whether we are arguing for LGTBQIA+ rights, the rights of people to vote or to have the rights to public debate: we need to make these arguments sincerely and passionately.

Otherwise, I fear when I turn 32 in 2030, I will be reflecting that my birthday really has overtaken International Human Rights Day as the more well observed event.


George Fairhurst is the Chair of the newly set up Yorkshire and Humberside network, a recent graduate in Journalism and Politics, and a Whittards tea merchant by day and political agitator by night! George tweets at @FabianFairhurst.

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