December 10th will mark DC's 10th anniversary as a Human Rights City. In honor of this important milestone, AFSC DC is planning a Human Rights Week of Action December 10-14. This week will begin on International Human Rights Day (December 10) and conclude with a community open house at ONE DC's Black Workers and Wellness Center on Friday, December 14. This blog series is a part of AFSC DC's Human Rights Week of Action.
Author: Heather Hill, Chair United Nations Association of the National Capital Area Human Rights Committee
I cannot remember a time when I didn’t care about human rights. Has there ever been a time when I didn’t think that people had a right to their own sovereignty? To not be tortured? To have a voice? To be treated equally, be tried and punished fairly, to relax or believe whatever they wanted, to get a real education, and have their own opinions? No, from as far back as I can recall, I thought that’s just how things should be—even though I also could see clearly that they weren’t.
My beliefs from a young age were deeply informed by a global life. To this day, I balk when someone asks where I’m from because I have no quick or easy answer. I grew up between worlds and among many different cultures with all their unique, overlapping, and occasionally opposing systems and practices. I spent my childhood in a colony and my adolescence primarily in the former Soviet Union. I understood oppression and brutality as I watched the wellbeing of my fellow colonized friends be subjugated to the whims and sidelined to that of the colonizers. I watched how narratives both lock people in and can be the powerful key to freedom.
As a teen, I grew up the same age as the country I lived in, and we stepped into adulthood together, experiencing the weight of what it means to be sovereign selves, responsible citizens, and face our own historic flaws, biases, and racism. My siblings and I watched tanks roll past and cowered a bit when our house shook as heavily loaded NATO planes flew overhead on their way to bomb Kosovo, where we had friends in hiding. Wandering around city streets across Europe and talking with friends and strangers alike, I absorbed first-hand holocaust survivor stories and saw the brutality of what happens when people’s rights and humanity are stripped away or denied. Later, during college, I studied in Rwanda, where I witnessed ongoing trials from the genocide and spent significant time conducting interviews and documenting stories from both sides of that devastating conflict.
What baffles me still is that for all of these formative experiences and strong beliefs, I didn’t think that I knew anything about human rights—and not only did I not really know about the UDHR, but I was unclear about what other UN resources could be used locally aside from the deployment of peacekeeping troops or the ICC.
I joined the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations Association – National Capitol Area (UNA-NCA) a year after moving to Washington DC not because of human rights, but because I simply wanted to be more involved in the UNA-NCA. What I found was a place where I could finally connect issues that I had locally experienced globally to what until then had seemed to me a very abstract, academic concept—human rights—and I discovered that there are many tools and avenues to making sure that human rights aren’t abstract; aren’t just something that happens on “the international stage;” but take place right where we live. One of those ways happens to be turning your city (or town or hamlet) into a Human Rights City.
We have probably all heard a thousand times this year the famous quote, “Where do human rights begin? In the small places, close to home.” Eleanor Roosevelt was right about the UDHR—and what a legacy to leave!—and she is, I think, also right about this. I unknowingly cared about human rights my entire life because of experiences close to home, but until I bumbled my way into a committee that took the concept of human rights from its high place and brought it home to “how does this impact us locally and how can we locally impact it in turn,” I said I wasn’t “a human rights person.”
Human rights do begin close to home, whether it is in the awakening of our personal indignation and outrage at the stripping of what we have been encultured to or the understanding of how we can access resources in our own communities and build structures, systems, and educational materials that have human rights principles at their core and actualize for all citizens this fundamental truth stated in the UDHR preamble: that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” I am proud to be living in a city that is working towards this systemically and am eager to play my part in the empowering work as a resident.