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Human Rights Day – a global celebration

Human Rights Day presents an opportunity to involve and galvanize people from all walks of life, young and old for the promotion and protection of human rights. At rock concerts in Colombia and Mexico, on television in Timor-Leste and Kosovo and out on the streets of Phnom Penh in a march across the city, through poetry, paintings, film and theatre, for 2009 Human Rights Day, people celebrated diversity and supported an end to discrimination.

A student in Bujumbura, Burundi explains the drawing she entered for the Human Rights Day competiton with the theme, embrace diversity, end discriminationYoung people are central to Human Rights Day. Many plans are specific to them and their contributions are often the most memorable. In Guatemala, youth leaders from five different ethnic groups met to share ideas and come up with proposals on how to defy discrimination and build a more inclusive society. In Tanzania there was a month-long series of debates in high schools on human rights issues and in Colombia the Human Rights office organised a 24 hour on-line special with a melange of material about human rights including interviews, videos and a performance of the local band, Dr Krapula.

Hayat Ahmed who’s in Grade 7 at the School of Nations in Addis Ababa wrote the story of Selamawit and submitted it as an entry in a 2009 Human Rights Day competition for schoolchildren. The competing students had to reference their work on this year’s theme of ‘embracing diversity, ending discrimination’. The story, set in the 1970s, has Selamawit travelling to Germany in search of a new future not long after finishing school.

When she arrived at the International Airport in Frankfurt she took a taxi to a very cheap hotel nearby. The next day she left her hotel on foot to look around. That area was a very busy and crowded market place so it was hard for her to find her way back. She started to ask people for directions. She didn’t know if her hotel was very far from where she was but nobody would even talk to her… lt was getting dark and she was worn out and desperate to go back to the hotel. At last she went into a shop and saw an old man, she was about to ask him when he himself asked her if she was Ethiopian. He then told her that he used to live in Addis Ababa and that he loved Ethiopians hospitality. After some enjoyable conversation he told her the way to the hotel and sent her off. It is sad that it took her half a day to find the hotel that was only five minutes away from where she was.

What is wrong with saying, "on the next corner turn right."? The truth is there is no difference unless you try to make one. There should not be anybody that doesn’t embrace diversity and end discrimination. God created us all equal; whether we are white or black, poor or rich, male or female, Muslim or Christian, we are one big family. We are different only in shape, size, color and personal opinion.

The judges in the writing competition held in Addis Ababa eventually decided that each of the entries was equally interesting and that a single prize could not be awarded. All of the stories were subsequently read out at a Human Rights Day ceremony in Addis Ababa. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) regional office in East Africa and its partners in Ethiopia collaborated on a program both celebratory and serious, involving children, the general public and senior officials to mark the Day and launch a campaign for ratification of international human rights instruments yet to be endorsed.

Round the globe, Human Rights Day was observed in many and varied ways. “Embrace diversity, end discrimination” was communicated through film festivals, posters and a range of other artworks, concerts, drama, quizzes, the awarding of prizes and through many gatherings of senior experts, interested parties and Government representatives organized to debate and discuss the challenges ahead.

In Pnom Penh, 2,000 people participated in a peaceful march on Human Rights DayOHCHR in Cambodia coordinated with other UN agencies an arts event with the message, “See ability, not disability” and in Azerbaijan too, the Human Rights office, with its partners, organized a roundtable discussion on protection of the most vulnerable: women, persons with disabilities and migrants. In Stockholm a conference organized by the Swedish Presidency of the EU and the EU’s Agency for Human Rights was attended by more than 200 participants. It was drawing attention to the protection of individual rights and support for the inclusion of marginalized groups, especially the Roma.

2009 is the 30th Anniversary of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and this very significant milestone was reflected in many of the Human Rights Day activities. In Timor-Leste a special session of Parliament was held on Human Rights with the proceedings focused specifically on discrimination against women and children. Human Rights UNAMA (UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) also concentrated on a theme of ending discrimination against the women of Afghanistan and organized a program of activities across the country to highlight that objective. A news conference organized with the Head of the Human Rights UNAMA and a well known Afghan male defender of women’s rights received wide media coverage internally and internationally.

Each Human Rights Day in Timor-Leste the annual Sergio de Viera de Mello Human Rights Awards are given to individuals and organizations in recognition of their work promoting and protecting human rights. De Mello, on mission in Iraq as the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative was killed in a terrorist bombing. He was formerly the UN Transitional Administrator in Dili.

For the people of Burundi in central Africa, Human Rights Day 2009 is of special importance because of next year’s presidential, parliamentary and local elections. The UN Integrated Office (BINUB) with the Government of Burundi and civil society partners organised a very full programme for 10 December to emphasize the importance of civil and political rights and to encourage in particular, the participation of women in the electoral process. Burundi is rebuilding after two decades of brutal civil war.

In Kosovo, another country recovering from recent conflict there were a number of debates on different aspects of discrimination and a short film screening. Human Rights in the movies is a favoured event globally. In Moscow too the 15th “Stalker” International Film Festival on Human Rights was held with the support of OHCHR and other UN agencies, and in the occupied Palestinian Territories, film screenings with human rights as their subjects were shown in a variety of locations.

None of these complex programmes are achieved without the cooperation and goodwill of many partner UN agencies and local organisations. In Haiti this year, for the first time, Human Rights Day was a joint effort involving several organisations both national and international. The result was a very successful public event in the capital, Port au Prince which was attended by about 500 people, many of them children. 

23 December 2009