At a conference in Taiwan last week, Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office Director Bruce Knotts spoke of threats to human rights. In his address at the International Forum for Freedom and Democracy in Taipei, he affirmed that human rights must never be put to a vote as had happened in Taiwan earlier that week. That country had just passed three referenda that would limit the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and couples. It has been shown throughout history that when the rights of a minority are put to a vote, the majority will strike those rights down. Instead we must heed the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares in Article 30 that no State, group, or person may have the right “to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” In order to avoid such restriction of minority rights by the majority, human rights must be enshrined in all our laws and policies and must never put to a popular vote.
Today, on December 10, the world marks Human Rights Day and the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. On this significant Human Rights Day, there are in fact two simultaneous UN conferences currently underway: the 24th Conference of Parties (COP24) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Katowice, Poland December 2-14, and the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration in Marrakech, Morocco December 10-11. It is impossible to talk about human rights in 2018 without talking about both climate change and migration.
In a recent article in The Guardian, the author and environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote of the “right to an inhabitable planet.” He acknowledged that as the drafters were writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, the planet itself was more or less ignored: “The idea of the ‘environment’ would barely have made sense at the time… it was the scenery, not the play.” The priority was placed upon humans’ treatment of one another. Yet in recent years it has become all the more critical to witness the impact that we as humans can have and indeed have had on the Earth. The threat of climate change is truly an existential one for human life on this planet, and as McKibben notes, “none of the other rights [articulated in the UDHR] can be guaranteed on an unstable planet: a heating planet endangers everything from food supplies to political freedom.” The UN Paris Agreement adopted in 2015 goes part of the way towards achieving a world that will be livable into the future, however those already ambitious goals must even be surpassed if we want to avoid drastic changes in how we live our lives.
One of the innumerable consequences of climate change will be a worsening of the global migration crisis. The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), is honoring Human Rights Day this year by joining other faith leaders for Love Knows No Borders: A moral call for migrant justice to witness the migrant caravan near the U.S./Mexico border. In a recent reflection shared on the LoveResists blog, Rev. Frederick-Gray lifted up the steps this moment demands of us as Unitarian Universalists and as human beings: “We have seen moments similar to this before when refugees knocked at the door of the United States with danger behind them and the promise of safety on the other side, only to find the doors locked… Instead of repeating the legacy of antisemitism, isolationism, and restrictive immigration policies that turned refugees away, we can embrace the example of two Unitarian Universalists, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, who saw people in need and made it their mission to help.” The UDHR very specifically states in Articles 13 and 14 that human beings have the right to migrate: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including [their] own, and to return to [their] country” (Article 13) and “Every person has a right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” (Article 14). All the rights and freedoms that are listed in the UDHR apply to every person in every place on this planet. It is up to us to ensure that these rights are respected for everyone, no matter their country of origin and no matter their migration or citizenship status. At the ongoing intergovernmental conference in Morocco, countries will adopt a Global Compact for Migration that states the treatment to which all migrants are entitled, as a framework to ensure that their human rights are respected.
This special anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an alert call to the world, reminding us that these human rights have been affirmed by all countries of the UN, but that listing them is not enough: They must also be fulfilled. We have a lot of work to do. Some of this work can be done at the United Nations, but much of it must happen locally by interfacing with local leaders, making sure that local laws reflect the articles of the UDHR; that management of cities, states, businesses, and organizations are mitigating climate change in accordance with the Paris Agreement; and that migration policies and practices embody the principles of the Global Compact for Migration.
As the United States backs down from strongly defending human rights at the United Nations, it is more critical than ever for Unitarian Universalists to maintain a solid presence through our UU-UNO, making sure that our progressive position of inclusion, empowerment, and equity is felt throughout the global body. Please support the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office with a gift today.