This week recognizes Human Rights Day, the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – a landmark document listing rights every human being is entitled to, regardless of race, religion, sex, nationality and other identifiers.
The day is often marked with commemorations of the progress made and recognition of the work still needed to be done in advancing freedom for all.
Traditionally, the date is also marked by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize.
A high honor recognized around the world, the Nobel Peace Prize is given to those who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
I got to stand on the soil that led to such work when I visited Liliesleaf Farm, a heritage site in South Africa.
Liliesleaf was used as a safe house for political fugitives and other activists during their fight to end apartheid — Nelson Mandela lived and operated there until he was arrested and imprisoned.
During my visit in 2019, I saw an exhibit focused on Sweden’s international solidarity with the South African liberation struggle.
That exhibit marks December 10, 1961, (60 years ago on Friday) when Chief Albert Luthuli, a leader in opposing the apartheid government in South Africa, received his Nobel Peace Prize.
Luthuli modeled his campaigns after the non-violent methods of Mahatma Gandhi. He is the first person of African heritage to receive this honor.
During his acceptance speech, Luthuli stated that he considered the award “a recognition of the sacrifice made by many of all races, particularly the African people, who have endured and suffered so much for so long.”
Part of the exhibit highlights the words of the current director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Olav Njølstad, who reflected on what the prize meant in 1961:
“It’s difficult to claim that the Peace Prize made very much of a difference, but I think it really also helped to get international attention and legitimacy for the anti-apartheid movement.”
He’s right: Prizes and plaques don’t make change, but an important step to creating a better world is often found in drawing attention to the plight of others.
On Human Rights Day, I am reminded of the need to continue to bring attention to the many ways individuals around the world are denied their human rights. We all have work to do.
The 2021 theme for Human Rights Day relates to equality, highlighting deep-rooted forms of discrimination that have affected the most vulnerable people of society. It particularly resonates with me and my work at BJC.
For more than 80 years, BJC has advocated for faith freedom for all and the promise that all people have the right to follow their spiritual beliefs. We stand up for the idea that someone doesn’t have to follow a certain religion — or any religion — to be afforded the rights all people deserve.
While BJC’s work is focused in the United States, it includes sounding the alarm about blasphemy laws in other countries and pressuring our leaders to ask for their repeal.
More than 80 countries around the world have laws that criminalize religious dissent and stifle religious expression. The consequences of such laws outlawing blasphemy and apostasy are religious intolerance, discrimination and violence against dissenting religious groups.
BJC worked with both houses of Congress to pass bipartisan resolutions calling for the U.S. State Department and the administration to seek the repeal of such laws as a foreign policy priority.
This small but important step allows us to stand with our global neighbors seeking faith freedom for all by bringing awareness to the issues that they face.
But we can’t stop there.
Living up to the UDHR means standing up for others domestically as well. BJC is working to protect an Indigenous sacred site being threatened by a foreign mining operation.
The Save Oak Flat Act would protect land used by the San Carlos Apache and other tribes for religious rites, cultural ceremonies and a burial ground, as well as a place to find medicinal plants, food and water.
Right now, the sacred land faces total destruction by a massive mining operation that would create a crater large enough to engulf the National Mall. We are asking Congress to protect the land and save our neighbors’ religious site.
On Human Rights Day, I hope we continue to recognize, shed light and draw attention to the good work being done around the world and stand up for others. We are all entitled to humanity.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to the United Nations’ Human Rights Day (Dec. 10). The other articles in the series are:
The Persistent Widow and the United Nations | Wissam al-Saliby
Words Alone Won’t Secure Human Rights, Address Climate Crisis | David Wheeler
Advocacy and outreach manager at BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), where he works to engage and empower supporters of faith freedom for all.