International Human Rights Day – What is there to celebrate?

Every year on 10th December, the world celebrates International Human Rights Day (1). During my professional life of 15 years, I have often encountered people of different backgrounds, who tend to argue that the topic of human rights actually exists quite far away from ordinary people’s lives: That ‘human rights’ is somehow ‘not about us’, too theoretical or too legal. On the contrary, I believe that in most societies across the world, it is quite a misunderstood topic. It has somehow drifted away from being seen as an integral part of all daily human experiences, instead becoming more and more wrapped-up in legalities and theoretical or policy frameworks. I believe that it is much closer to us than we might think, and that it bears a crucial role in everyone’s daily reality.

First of all, we are all human beings: all born equal, all born with the same human rights, which are universal and undividable. These rights are clearly laid out in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2), as well as other international human rights treaties (3). The freedoms and opportunities a lot of us enjoy are often taken for granted and these might be the same experiences, which may seem like a distant dream for people in more vulnerable or disadvantaged situations. People may be discriminated against due to disability, age, gender, sexual orientation, social status, beliefs, and other grounds. In those types of situations, the same freedoms and opportunities might be hidden away behind societal, physical, informational or attitudinal barriers, affected by socially constructed ‘norms’ or negative stereotypes, stigma, and grave human rights violations. However, none of us are immune to such potential negative experiences; in fact, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ at all – there is only ‘we’.

Having established that we all have the same fundamental human rights and none of us are immune to potentially experiencing human rights violations, it is important to understand that human rights are clearly interlinked and at interplay with all parts of our lives. For example, it is about our individual physical and mental health, as well as public health, education, work and employment, freedom of movement, opinions and beliefs, dignity and respect, life’s diversity, social and cultural fields, relationships, liberty, the safety and security of all persons, freedom from violence…

Whilst on my own professional path, I have travelled through different work positions in various sectors and countries. I started out as a community support worker and later worked as a qualified social worker in the UK. Several years later, I become a human rights and mental health activist in the NGO sector in Lithuania and the broader region of Eurasia. Now, I am a PhD fellow and global public mental health researcher in Portugal. During all these different professional experiences, I have always been amazed by how vital human rights has been as a foundation for all my work. It is always here, very close to us, very close to all our human experiences. For example, with my colleagues we have been addressing such topics, as everybody’s right to mental health, as well as human rights’ violations suffered by those, who experience mental health conditions or psychosocial disabilities. Also, working on issues related to gender-based violence, which is a major global issue of public health, public mental health, and gender inequality. Human rights is the basis of all these and many other related topics that I have been facing in my daily work – it has always been about people; and in my opinion, everything in this life that is about people, is automatically about human rights.

Even though human rights’ violations are often the main focus of human rights’ discourse that is talked about publicly, the very fact that we all have human rights, which are universally acknowledged and protected, is in itself a phenomena to celebrate. The fact that human beings have learnt from their recent dark histories, for example during WWII, and agreed internationally on some fundamental principles and standards of human rights for all persons, is a major achievement and matter to be respected and admired.

So, in conclusion… I believe that International Human Rights Day is indeed an important day to celebrate for many reasons; it is the day for and about each one of us and our loved ones. It is about our daily lives, as well as about public, physical and mental health, opportunities, choices, dignity, justice, and so much more. Thus, I wish everybody a happy International Human Rights Day – a very special day of and for celebrating humanity.

1 United Nations Human Rights Day: https://www.un.org/en/observances/human-rights-day
2 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights
3 United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Core International Human Rights Instruments and their Monitoring Bodies: https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/coreinstruments.aspx

Ugnė Grigaitė
Ugnė Grigaitė

PhD Fellow in Global Public Health (4th edition),
Lisbon Institute of Global Mental Health, Comprehensive Health Research Centre/NOVA Medical School, National School of Public Health, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa
u.grigaite@ensp.unl.pt ; ugne.grigaite@nms.unl.pt

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