Why We Hold the Line for Human Rights

Every year on International Human Rights Day, I sit down at my desk and take out my copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As a primary source for the movement for human rights and global justice, the visionary 1948 Declaration serves as a guiding light for all we do at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

As I recite the document, the first of the 30 articles resonates as a reminder of these foundational principles: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1) and “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind” (Article 2).

Sadly, the failure to realize Article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” still compels us to work toward eradication of this crime as a core component of PHR’s mission.

In a year like 2020, when the devastating COVID-19 pandemic has spread in parallel to historic social movements for racial equality confronting rising authoritarian oppression, we continue to strive for the realization of the range of rights outlined in the UDHR decades ago:

Article 14: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

Early in 2020, PHR equipped advocates and policymakers with incontrovertible evidence of the dire and tragic effect of the U.S. government’s family separation policy at the U.S. southern border. We showed how family separation constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and, in all cases evaluated by PHR experts, rises to the level of torture. The research continues to be used by those on the front lines of the struggle to protect the legal rights of asylum-seekers.

Article 20: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”

When George Floyd was killed by police and protests broke out across the United States, PHR offered expert resources on the excessive use of force by police and security forces. We documented dangerous use of crowd-control weapons on protestors and medics in cities across the country, including through an in-depth investigation into abuses in Portland, Oregon. Drawing on our years of expertise documenting similar abuses in other countries, we provided guidance to protestors on protecting themselves against weapons like tear gas.

Article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and of their family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

From the earliest days of the coronavirus crisis, PHR has elevated the voices of health workers around the world who reported unsafe working conditions and alarming shortages of personal protective equipment. We joined with medical and health worker associations across the country and around the world to protect front line workers, mobilizing our supporters to urge elected officials to prioritize public health over politics. And we are providing timely and science- and rights-based insights into the crisis through our ongoing webinar series.

If we have learned anything over this tumultuous year, it is that for human rights or public health, there is no “going it alone”: our rights and lives are inextricably linked to those of others.

In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first U.S. representative to the United Nations and the driving force behind the creation and adoption of the UDHR:

“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.”

On this International Human Rights Day, we reflect on the extraordinary strides that have been made to confront injustice and uphold the dignity of all people. We honor the resilience of survivors with whom we have worked in solidarity. We cheer for the tireless advocates who have exposed the truth about human rights violations, often at great personal risk. This year, we especially express our solidarity with health workers around the world who have used their voices, expertise, and compassion to protect and care for the most vulnerable among us.

Thank you to each of you who support PHR. Whether struggling against injustices in Kenya, Myanmar, Syria, Türkiye, or in the United States and on its borders, the past year has shown us that despite impossible circumstances, together, we truly can and must hold the line for human rights.

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