Human Rights Day in Fresno

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Photo by United Nations Photo via Flickr Creative Commons.

By Sudarshan Kapoor

“Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.” Hilary Clinton, then First Lady, on Sept. 5, 1995, said these powerful words during the United Nations’ 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. Her words echo the fundamental principle of equal rights of men and women as mentioned in the UN Charter, which was adopted by world leaders in 1945. Upholding, promoting and protecting women’s rights is the responsibility of all states, thus declared the UN Charter.

Recognizing the growing importance of and the need to promote women’s rights, the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) of the Central Valley has designated “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” as its theme to commemorate Human Rights Day on Dec. 9. The commemoration will be from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Fresno State campus in Room 118 of the North Gym.

The HRC Planning Committee, co-chaired by Veena Kapoor, Bernadette Vasquez and Gail Gaston, has developed an exciting program for this year’s commemoration. The program includes a panel led by experts and eight discussion groups on various issues affecting women.

The keynote speaker is Amanda Renteria, chief of operations for the California Department of Justice. A welcome address by Mary G. Castro and a special message by Dolores Huerta are slated. This year’s commemoration challenges us to focus on women’s leadership and resilience to turn obstacles and barriers into opportunities for growth and empowerment. The commemoration opens with a continental breakfast hosted by Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro.

Co-sponsoring the commemoration are the Fresno County Office of Education, the Ethics Center at Fresno State, the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno and several other human rights groups from the Central Valley. Admission is free, and parking is relaxed.

Declaration of Human Rights

“We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all persons everywhere.” These were the prophetic words of Eleanor Roosevelt, head of the Human Rights Commission, while submitting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to the UN General Assembly, which adopted the document on Dec. 10, 1948, at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris.

The UDHR was the result of the bitter experience of World War II, the atrocities committed during the Holocaust and the dismantling of the oppressive colonial system. It symbolized the hopes, dreams and aspirations of millions of people seeking peace, security and justice all over the world. It sent a powerful signal to world governments to be accountable and respectful of human rights and the basic freedoms of their citizens. It also made the citizens responsible for holding their governments accountable for achieving and protecting these rights.

The UDHR was adopted to complement the UN Charter as a road map to a peaceful and just world where human beings enjoy freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear and want, which are proclaimed as the highest aspirations of the people. A peaceful world free of war and violence, and devoid of hatred, prejudice and discrimination, was the dream conceived by the General Assembly.

Roosevelt, called the “First Lady of the World” by President Harry Truman, was the driving force behind the formulation and adoption of the UDHR, which is remembered as her major legacy. Roosevelt not only was a strong advocate for human rights but also was equally concerned about the responsibilities that go along with human rights.

While working on the UDHR, Roosevelt said that “freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.” On women’s rights, she said that “the battle for the individual rights of women is one of longstanding, and none of us should countenance anything which undermines it.”

What Are Human Rights?

The UDHR consists of 30 articles that describe 1) civil and political rights such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; 2) economic, social and cultural rights such as the right to work, social security, education and healthcare; and 3) collective rights such as the rights to development, self-determination and participation in community life. These human rights are universal and inalienable, interdependent and indivisible, egalitarian and nondiscriminatory.

Human rights are inherent to all persons regardless of nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language or any other status. Human rights provide a foundation for international human rights laws and are often expressed and guaranteed by governments when legislated, for example, civil rights in the United States. Human rights entail both rights and obligations at the government and individual level. Though human rights are considered natural rights or believed to be God given, their conception, increasing importance and universal acceptance are relatively new.

Commemorations in Fresno

Since its inception in 2012, the HRC has organized five successful events commemorating the UDHR. Professor Marjorie Cohn of the Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, a well-known scholar with expertise on human torture, addressed the first Human Rights Day commemoration in 2012. She spoke on “Government-Sanctioned Torture and Human Rights.” Many of the attendees expressed the desire for the commemoration be continued in future years.

In 2013, at the second commemoration, the theme was “Human Trafficking: Modern Day Slavery That Is Closer Than You Think.” Trade of Innocents, a powerful film that raises public awareness of human trafficking was shown. Jim Schmidt, a producer of the film, was the keynote speaker. Following the keynote speech, a panel consisting of local experts, including a survivor of human trafficking, addressed the topic.

The 2014 commemoration was around the theme “Bullying-Human Rights Violations Against Freedom, Equality, Dignity and Respect.” Bullying is an age-old problem rampant in many societies and cultures. Its presence in schools is a growing concern for parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders. With all the media coverage about school violence and the educational emphasis on safe schools, addressing the problem of bullying in schools deserves attention, resources and commitment.

Bullying is violence, and violence perpetuates violence. Bullying in schools starts the cycle of violence at an early stage. It is a violation against freedom, equality, human dignity and respect-values that are highly emphasized in the UN Charter and the UDHR.

The Honorable Judge David Gottleib of the Fresno Superior Court was the keynote speaker. Gottlieb is an expert in promoting and implementing restorative justice as an alternative method to incarceration to rehabilitate youth offenders.

The theme for the 2015 commemoration was “Climate Change: People, Planet and the Valley.” The keynote speaker was Mark Arax, an award-winning journalist and author. Arax gave an inspiring presentation on climate issues affecting the Central Valley.

The theme for the 2016 commemoration was “The Refugee Crisis and Human Rights: Global and Local Perspectives.” Dr. Robert P. Sellers, board chair of the Parliament of World’s Religions, was the keynote speaker. Sellers, a renowned scholar and theologian, shared the global implications and issues pertaining to the refugee crisis facing humanity due to religious and ideological conflicts. Experts from the Central Valley shared their experiences addressing refugee issues at home.

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Professor Emeritus Sudarshan Kapoor is the founder and currently the chair of the Human Rights Coalition. He was the founding director of the Peace and Conflict Studies program and the founder of the Peace Garden at Fresno State. Contact him at 559-435-2212 or skapoor334@ gmail.com.