Millions of people have gone on to the streets over the past few years, some demanding civil and political rights, others demanding economic, social and cultural rights.
This groundswell is not simply a question of people demanding freedom to say what they think.
They are asking for much more than that. They are asking for an end to a situation where governments simply decide what is best for their populations without even consulting them. They are asking for their right to participate fully in the important decisions and policies affecting their daily lives.
They are only asking for what has been, for more than sixty years, rightfully theirs. They are asking for the human rights laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which is commemorated every year on 10 December.
Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Every person shall have the right to vote and be elected, and to have access to public service, as well as to free expression, assembly and association.
These rights are supposed to apply to everyone. No one should be excluded from any one of them because they are female, belong to a minority, or worship a certain religion; or because they are gay, have a disability, have particular political beliefs, are migrants or belong to a certain racial or ethnic group. We should all have a voice that counts in our societies.
Unfortunately, many people don’t.
Instead they are ignored. Or, worse, they are actively persecuted, along with the people who are trying to help them gain their rights – the human rights defenders. Sometimes, it is less deliberate, more insidious: certain individuals or groups are simply not given the opportunity to raise their voice, or use their brains and talents to achieve the successes of which they are capable, to climb out of poverty, or achieve high office.
Many millions of people cannot even dream of aiming high, they just dream of getting by – of surviving until tomorrow.
That may be because they have not been to school, have no health care, or insufficient food – because they lack the basic rights and services that would give them the opportunity to build a better future.
Or it may be because they are specifically excluded from seizing opportunities by discriminatory laws or practices.
Or it may simply be because their leaders are so focused on their own grip on power that they simply don’t care what happens to those whose lives they govern, and provide them with just enough to keep them quiet.
But in the past two years, people in many countries have raised the stakes, and made it clear that “just enough” is no longer good enough. In many countries, they have confronted their governments head on, not just in the Middle East and North Africa, but in other parts of the world as well.
In some countries, we continue to see extreme examples of rights being trampled underfoot. Thousands of men, women and children tortured to death, raped, bombed, shelled, shot, or forced from their homes; people deprived of food, water, electricity and health care by their own governments or by armed groups, apparently intent on nothing more than their own hold on power. These are governments and non-state actors who continue to behave in a way that is the complete antithesis of everything we celebrate on Human Rights Day.
Today, I salute all those who have suffered so much seeking what is rightfully theirs -- and all those people in other countries who are also saying “we have a voice, we have our rights and we want to participate in the way our societies and economies are run.”
Because that is how it should be.