Celebrating Progress Toward Universal Human Rights

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted and adopted by the United Nations in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II, the Declaration’s 30 articles were codified as a blueprint, a guide created after unimaginable destruction to retune our moral compasses and set us on a better path.

But change is not an easy feat. In the 70 years since the declaration was ratified, we’ve seen war ravage nations, genocide decimate peoples, and violations of every tenet on the list. Yet even in the darkest moments, there are traces of hope.

For us at AJWS, these glimmers of optimism come by way of our grantees—human rights organizations large and small who campaign for the rights of their communities with indefatigable fervor. This year, some of them have achieved unprecedented success, despite the rise in authoritarianism, populism and violence rippling across the globe. They have sought justice, invoking the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This is a glimpse into some of those victories:

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

 -Article III

In Guatemala, activists have finally achieved the first reparations for grieving families whose loved ones were slain in the 1982 Maya Achi massacre—when the Guatemalan military brutally slaughtered hundreds of indigenous people who refused to uproot themselves to make way for a hydroelectric dam.

After decades of tireless advocacy and organizing by local and international allies, including AJWS grantee RedLAR (the Latin American Network Against Dams and for Rivers, Communities and Life), the government finally took responsibility for the killings and promised to pay reparations. In 2014, Guatemala’s then-president Otto Perez Molina apologized for the human, cultural and environmental destruction. In October 2015, the government handed the first check to Teodora Chen, a survivor of the massacre. It was the first of over $20 million that will be paid to members of the 33 communities whose members were murdered, exploited or displaced by the dam project.

 

“Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.”

-Article VIII

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, women are taking the lead to stop sexual violence. Throughout the years of brutal conflict in the country, soldiers from warring factions have inflicted terrible attacks on women, causing the media to label the DRC as “the rape capital of the world.” Survivors of these attacks typically don’t find justice, as the courts, police and rule of law collapsed long ago from the ongoing fighting, and women often struggle to make their voices heard, even in their homes and communities.

AJWS’s grantees in the region are empowering women to pursue justice in the courts. They are finding ways to speak up for their rights, increase enforcement of existing laws and change the culture of impunity surrounding violence against women.

Julienne Lusange visiting beneficiaries of her organization SOFEPADI in Beni, Dmecratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik
Julienne Lusange visiting beneficiaries of her organization SOFEPADI in Beni, Dmecratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik

In 2015, for example, AJWS grantees Female Solidarity for Integrated Peace and Development (SOFEPADI) and Dynamique des Femmes Juristes (DFJ) brought hundreds of cases of sexual violence to court and secured convictions for 214 survivors.

“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

-Article XXI

In Haiti, our grantees are at the forefront of the fight to ensure fair elections. After the corruption and electoral fraud that characterized Haiti’s 2015-2016 elections—and has plagued the country for decades—AJWS grantees, including Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains, led the most robust and effective effort to date to contest fraud, verify votes, and demand a recount and a repeat of the elections.

 

 “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others…No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”

-Article XVII

In May 2017, Kenya’s indigenous Ogiek community won a landmark court case to defend their right to land. For generations, the Ogiek have lived in Kenya’s Mau Forest—a rich land that is a source of water, food and livelihood for millions of people. But since 1963, successive governments have forced the Ogiek off their ancestral lands.

With help from AJWS grantee Ogiek People’s Development Programme (OPDP), the Ogiek community fought back. They sued the government for evicting them without warning or consultation.

In the spring of 2013, AJWS grantee Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program (OPDP) helped this woman’s community win a legal case against loggers who were plundering forests that indigenous people depended on.

Following years of sustained legal support from OPDP, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights delivered a revolutionary ruling in favor of this community. The court upheld their right to live in the forest and to seek reparations for their losses, and recognized their status as a distinct indigenous people—setting an important legal precedent for indigenous communities across the entire continent.


Just as we’re usually unable to see the curvature of the earth—though we know it’s round—sometimes it’s hard to imagine a just world. Still, every once in a while, we get a glimpse of true progress in our work for social change. We see courageous people refusing to abide by the status quo, insisting that we are all entitled to the inalienable human rights codified 70 years ago today, and fighting with all their might to shift the arc, even if just a degree or two, toward justice.

 
Sumit Galhotra

Tamar Karpuj is the Publications and Marketing Editor at AJWS.