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11 December 2012

Human Rights Day 2012: “No matter who you are, or where you live, your voice counts”

Every year, Human Rights Day is celebrated on 10 December, drawing attention to human rights and the need for people to fully enjoy such rights. The 2012 celebration was marked by the theme “Inclusion and the Right to Participate in Social Life,” and in particular drew attention to all people’s rights, including those of socially excluded and marginalized people, to make their voices heard in public life and political decision-making. The Day further drew attention to the 64th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) [1].

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, chaired an event in Geneva, one of several taking place around the world, celebrating the Day. The event brought together an international panel to share their views and experiences on access to participation in public life.

The right of every citizen to participate in the public affairs of his or her country is set out in the Declaration, international treaties and covenants. For instance, article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that the right of every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs, to vote and be elected and have access to public service applies to all people, without the exclusion of certain groups and without unreasonable restrictions. Ms. Pillay stated that these instruments do not simply point out the right of individuals to say what they think, but rather, they reinforce the right to participate fully in decision-making processes that affect their daily lives.

Despite the right to participate in public decision-making being formally enunciated through the Declaration, certain individuals and groups are still excluded from the process. For example, women constitute more than half of the world’s population and yet they are still largely under-represented in parliaments, senior government posts and corporate boardrooms. Ms. Pillay noted that there are only two countries in the world, namely Rwanda and Andorra, where women hold at least 50% or more parliamentary seats in the lower or unique house. By contrast, in almost one in ten States women hold less than 5% of the parliamentary seats in the lower house. The average number of female ministers of parliament currently stands at just over 20% in the lower house and at 18% on average in the upper house or senate.

Laura Dupuy Lasserre, President of the Human Rights Council and permanent representative of Uruguay to the United Nations, said that the right to participate in public life, as illuminated in the Declaration, is just as relevant today as it was at the time of its adoption. The voice of dissidents must be heard and a national dialogue must be established to give effect to this right

Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition member of the Myanmar Parliament and leader of the National League for Democracy, emphasized in a video statement that communication is crucial to participation in public life. Ms. Suu Kyi noted that, communication is a two-way business, and listening is just as important as speaking. Participation and inclusion in public affairs is good but it must be based on the desire to work together and sort out difference through discussion and debate.

Former United States President Jimmy Carter also delivered a video statement. He emphasized that a universal and inclusive approach needs to be adopted to encourage participation in public life. Every nation must participate in achieving access to participation in public affairs and fulfilling the full spectrum of human rights and the UN must take the lead. Universality of this undertaking has become even more pronounced since the inception of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as every government faces the same level of scrutiny. The next major step the Human Rights Council should take is to embrace a more robust role for the civil society.

Further, Mr. Carter noted that in every country, political activists face tremendous risks and the courage demonstrated by such individuals is to be acknowledged. Instead of resisting such voices they should be encouraged and measures should be put in place to ensure that they do not face retribution for making legitimate claims against oppressive governments and policies. If there is one thing that could be learned from the Arab awakening it is that today’s human rights defenders may be tomorrow’s revolutionaries.

The discussion evolved around the use of social media to promote participation and the role of old people, particularly women. Although the advantages of social media were frequently highlighted, the downsides also got attention. Questions about government surveillance and the true usefulness for people on the ground were raised.

Francis Kariuki, the administrative chief of the Lanet Umoja village of Nakuru North (Kenya), has addressed communication issues in his community by turning to social media such as Twitter. To encourage reciprocal communication he went to his community and showed its members how to read Tweets and respond to them. In his view, information is empowering and by using a medium such as Twitter he can pass information on people and they can access it easily. In addition, the use of social media has been a powerful outlet for youth participation in public life. Mr. Karjuki concluded by expressing optimism on the spread of social media in his country and the positive stance the government was taking on it.

On the other hand, the founder for the Policy Center for Roma and Minorities, Valeriu Nicolae, shared his experiences in working with marginalized Roma people, and said that access to social media does not automatically improve the situation on the ground. People very often lack access to these tools of participation. In his view, “e-activism” must not be sidelined with activism on the ground.

In further evaluating the lack of participation of Roma people in public affairs, Mr. Nicolae suggested that there is a lack of relevant academic contribution on matters concerning the Roma people. In his experience the European Commission, for example, lacks representatives who are sufficiently appraised of, let alone engaged with, the Roma community and the issues that they are faced with. Mr. Nicolae also noted that, in his observation, the best professionals within the Roma community are usually hesitant to reveal that they are Roma because they fear discrimination and this has obvious consequences in terms of lack of participation in public decision-making.

Tunisian activist and president of the International Federation for Human Rights, Souhayr Belhassen drew attention to the lack of participation of older people, calling them the “exluded among the excluded.” She explained that in the Arab world, where the young population constitutes a very large proportion of the population and their grievances and demands are more vocal, older persons can be forgotten. Mr. Nicolae echoed this and referred to the situation for older Roma women. Reacting to the issue, Ms Lasserre highlighted that the Human Rights Council recently adopted a Resolution on the human rights of older people.

The Human Rights Day event concluded with the official launch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Arabic website. In opening the site, Ms Pillay remarked that access to information is the cornerstone of good government and participation in public discourse. The High Commissioner is confident that the website will raise awareness among Arabic speaking peoples and help make a difference to participation in public life. The site will enable users to learn more about their rights and the obligations of the States under human rights law. Ms. Belhassen agreed that the Arabic version of the OHCHR website is important and its launch recognizes the vital role of human rights organizations in disseminating information about the human rights machinery and processes.

In New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement for the Day, emphasizing that everyone has the right to be heard and to shape the decisions that affect their community. Yet, until today, he warned, “No country has succeeded in ensuring that all its inhabitants are able to participate fully in public affairs, including the right to be elected to public office and to have equal access to public services.” He also deplored the measures taken by some countries to limit people’s right to participate including the freedom of expression and opinion, and of peaceful assembly and association. This development was especially affecting civil society groups, which the Secretary-General termed “the keys” to the well-being and functioning of any nation.

For further information on Human Rights Day and its celebrations, visit the official UN website of Human Rights Day 2012 as well as the dedicated OHCHR here

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