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Since today, December 10, is international Human Rights Day, I am just reading over a short history of the drafting of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted on this date in 1948. Despite the fact that the UDHR is a “declaration” and not a formal binding treaty, it has served as the foundation of the modern human rights movement: Every time a country references one of its articles in a constitution, or cites it in a legal decision in a court, the UDHR continues to gather strength and move the world to a place where there are no excuses for violations of basic freedoms.
The notion of basic rights is behind our work at Oxfam, so I am also thinking about those people we work with who are fighting for their own rights, and those of others, every day. Here are just three examples that stand out:
1. Philomena Addo, a local political representative in a small town in Ghana, told me last year that she is negotiating with mining companies from a position of strength, now that she understands her basic right to be consulted: “Now they know if they want to work here they need to come and ask for our consent. Now they recognize we know our rights, and that is why they are respecting us.”
2. Ines Santizo, working in Guatemala to help women survivors of domestic violence to understand their basic rights to live free from violence. She told me that she tries to teach women three things about themselves: “Who I am, what I am worth, and what I am capable of doing.”
3. The courageous people and organizations involved in Oxfam’s worker’s rights program in the US: Some of the most basic rights in the UDHR do not apply to farmworkers in the US, such as the right to a basic minimum wage, for example. The right to form a labor union (Article 23) is also routinely denied.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the US representative on the UN committee that wrote the UDHR, she said that in the field of human rights “to stand still is to retreat.” This is one of the reasons Oxfam places the basic rights of people at the center of our work, and why we won’t stop working on them.