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UN chief applauds human rights activists

Human rights activists took centre stage at the celebration of Human Rights Day hosted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York.

Ky-mani Marley performs at the UN celebration of Human Rights Day in New York © UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

In the presence of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, General Assembly President Joseph Deiss and UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, the activists called for an end to laws and practices that discriminate against certain groups.

Nkhensani Mavasa from South Africa urged countries to “abolish laws and policies that criminalise HIV”.

Frank Mugisha from Uganda urged UN Member States to protect the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgender people.

Speaking about discrimination against indigenous peoples and African descendants, Michael Campbell from Nicaragua called for criminal sanctions against those who practice racial discrimination.

The defenders agreed that to defeat discrimination, it had to be fought at all levels, including communities, families and individuals, and in all spheres of life, from education to religion. 

Chitra Aiyar, who fights for the rights of low-wage migrant workers in the United States, pointed out that discrimination occurs within one’s own community or even family.

 “Domestic workers are brought to the United States and treated badly by their own communities. People who share their culture and language are often their enslavers,” she said.

Such migrant workers, she added, face further discrimination in the public life of the host country because of cultural and language barriers.

Under the slogan “Speak Up, Stop Discrimination”, Human Rights Day focused on human rights defenders fighting against all forms of discrimination.

“Diverse as their backgrounds may be, they share a common cause — a commitment to stand against wrongdoing … to protect the weak and vulnerable … to speak against discrimination, intolerance and injustice … to combat impunity,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

 “We call on governments everywhere to uphold the rights of these brave individuals. We call on every nation to embrace the freedoms that they stand for…. And we urge every nation to adopt the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders as binding national legislation,” he said.

UN Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, said she had been inspired to fight for human rights and democracy by human rights defenders, including her father who died in detention and her mother who participated in the human rights movement in her country, Chile.

“As Executive Director of UN Women, I can assure you that the defence of the rights of women will be a top priority of our work,” she said.

General Assembly President, Joseph Deiss, acknowledged the contribution of human rights defenders to the work of intergovernmental bodies.

“They bring a grassroots perspective to our debates, they galvanize action, they advance issues and they play a pioneering role,” he said.

Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, called for a world where human rights defenders are appreciated and not persecuted.

“My wish is that there are many more remarkable people like you, fighting against discrimination and for all human rights for all people,” he said, referring to the activists.

His message was echoed by singer Ky-Mani Marley, who had the audience on its feet singing “stand up for your rights” in a live performance of the Bob Marley and the Wailers’ song, “Get Up, Stand Up”.

The event was held on 9 December 2010.

13 December 2010