It’s been a tough year for human rights.
From China’s ruthless ethnic cleansing and internment of a million Uighurs in its western Xinjiang province; to the vicious, years-long wars on civilians in Syria and Yemen, exacerbated by America’s abandonment of our allies and principles; to the lethal crackdowns in recent months on protesters in Baghdad, Hong Kong, Abuja, and across Iran and Sudan; to the brazen widespread muzzling of journalists; to America’s locking out asylum seekers while kidnapping, caging, and deporting those who somehow managed to enter our country, the world’s 2019 human rights record is a dismal one.
The casual cruelty with which powerful governments and companies continue to displace indigenous peoples across the globe by stealing or desecrating their sacred lands and monuments flows from the same hateful vein as the denigration and abuse in the U.S. and abroad of the LGBTQ community, women and girls, people of color, and ethnic and religious minorities. Indeed, as the year careens to a close, it’s a demoralizing moment for human rights defenders and all who have clung so fervently to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, invoking 19th-century abolitionist minister Theodore Parker affirming that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Still, on this Human Rights Day we need to take heart — for there has been progress, there is good reason for hope, there is powerful forward movement in many countries, and it’s on us to keep it up.
On the international stage, in 2019 our leading institutions of justice held several alleged war criminals to account. In July the International Criminal Court in The Hague found Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda guilty of 18 war crimes and crimes against humanity, including, for the first time, the count of sexual slavery, for actions taken in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri province back in 2002–3. Just last month, the ICC unanimously sentenced Ntaganda, to 30 years in prison for these crimes. Also this fall, a German juvenile court in Hamburg finally heard the case against former Nazi guard Bruno Dey, now 93, on 5,230 counts of accessory to murder allegedly committed when he was 17.
At the national level, courageous members of civil society have taken the lead in effecting change. It was the bravery and tenacity of Sudanese women, in fact — not the ICC’s decade-old indictment for genocide — who spearheaded the months of protests against the oppression, sexual violence, and economic privation they experienced under the harsh and fiercely misogynistic rule of Omar al-Bashir, that ultimately triggered the downfall of the murderous 30-year despot.
The victories for international justice and accountability haven’t stopped with war criminals. Climate and environmental justice, championed by fierce teen activist Greta Thunberg and youth all over the planet, the United Nations, and most of the world’s scientists, environmental organizations, and Paris accord signatories have claimed center stage, galvanizing massive protests fueled by increasingly dire projections based on ever-more refined and accurate evidence.
Other international agencies have also stepped up their game. To curtail the epidemic of violence against women and girls, in May the World Health Organization, together with UN Women and four more UN entities, four bilateral aid agencies, and The World Bank Group, launched its new RESPECT Women framework to help policymakers and health implementers design and run verifiably effective programs to prevent gender-based violence.
In other reproductive justice arenas, there is more good news. Despite the cruel, anti-poor, and short-sighted abridgement of accessible women’s health services across an increasing number of U.S. states and the Trump administration’s retrenchment of support for maternal health overseas, the incidence and number of deaths from both breast and cervical cancer have continued to decrease, as have abortion rates. And although maternal mortality is tragically, and wholly unnecessarily on the rise in the United States, health practitioners, women’s health and advocacy organizations, and their committed supporters have mobilized tirelessly to help fill in the gap.
The increasing strength and linkages among grassroots organizations doing cutting-edge work is also inspiring. Brilliant alliances of grassroots organizations — focused on climate, maternal health for women of color, criminal justice reform, educational equity — are increasingly recognized and heeded by large foundations and development agencies, which have come to realize that the breadth and impact of their investment depends on their disseminating broadly the expertise and experience of local organizations that know what works. At WomenStrong International, we bring such organizations together, to share what they know, learn from each other, and get out the word about what works to empower urban women and girls.
As these frontline organizations know better than anyone, there is power in community! Four young professionals in Bologna, concerned that the hatemongering far-right League party might possibly win in local elections, put out a call for a flash mob protest and, imagining their success in packing their city’s central piazza, called themselves “the sardines.” Their call to action drew 15,000 to Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, 6,000 in Palermo, 7,000 in Modena, 40,000 in Florence, 131,000 on Facebook, and the foursome are now planning for one million “Sardines” to turn up in Rome this coming weekend.
“Something big is happening,” 24-year-old Alessandra Giordano told the BBC, as she joined thousands who braved a downpour to protest in Milan. “It’s time to let them know we’ve woken up against racism, hatred, people fighting each other.”
From Milan to Paris to Hong Kong to Santiago to Washington, DC, millions are saying the same. This Human Rights Day, we need to march with them, to stand behind them, to shout out for the right of every human being to speak up, to be heard, to be free.