10 December marks the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in San Francisco in 1948, following the Holocaust and the other horrors of the Second World War.
It should be a day of great celebrations as we remember our rights and those of all humans. Yet it will barely feature in any news stories and most people will know nothing of its passing. Not for nothing is the UDHR known as the world’s best-kept secret.
This seems a terrible shame, particularly in a region such as the North East, where people fought bravely not only for their own rights, but for those of others. They protested both the horrific Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Grey’s Monument in the centre of Newcastle celebrates the support of Newcastle people for ending slavery in the British Empire and more men in this country getting the vote.
They also worked for better and safer working conditions in places such as mines and shipyards and let us never forget that the suffragette martyr, Emily Davison, is buried in Northumbrian soil in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin in Morpeth.
The importance of human rights
We live in a time when human rights seem to be less regarded than they have been for a long time. This seems very sad, as they form the basis of the decent society, we surely all want to live in. The 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights include those to health and education, yet both the NHS and the education system are broken, diminishing us all.
We need to consider human rights as the basis of the decent society we all want to see. That means that people should not have to be waiting months and months for routine operations on the NHS and we should certainly not accept people dying needlessly while waiting for treatment. Similarly, we should have an education system, which truly gives our young people the right to an appropriate and useful education, which can help them to thrive, while helping them to prepare for challenges ahead of them, such as the climate crisis.
It is also perhaps well worth remembering the words of the man who came to Newcastle on 13 November 1967 and was honoured by Newcastle University. One of Martin Luther King’s most famous statements was as follows:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This seems very true, as one only has to remember another famous quote from pastor Niemoller, that if we don’t defend each other from those who would deprive anybody of their rights, they may one day come for us. There have always been those who want to keep other people down, so that they can be manipulated and used and sadly that is still true today.
We must remember the rights of all and not be divided by those who would seek to use human rights as wedge issue. At the end of the day, respecting another person’s rights is simply a matter of treating a fellow human with the dignity and respect they deserves as a fellow human being. So, while it is right to value our own rights, we should follow the example of those who came before us in the North East and remember the rights of others too.
In our region, it is of course perhaps particularly important to remember those in Saudi Arabia, who languish in jail cells, for using Twitter or after having signed false confessions following terrible torture.
Human rights are universal
Human rights are universal, belonging to all humans. We must be vigilant to protect them, as they had to be won in the first place and consequently can be lost again. As a result, we must oppose any action by the government or any other actor, which takes anybody’s human rights away. whoever they are, as an attack on anybody’s human rights is indeed an attack on us all.
Let us take inspiration from those who went before us in this region and work for the human rights of ourselves and others. That is the way to the decent, civilised society we should be and the vast majority of British people want us to be. By defending our own rights to a well-funded and effective NHS and education system, the right to clean water and to a society where the poor are looked after properly and to the rights of others, including minorities and asylum seekers, we can still turn the page on today’s difficult times and build a better society. Let us all commit to doing that.