As you read this piece this moment, someone’s right is being violated. No, I don’t mean in those far-flung places that you can truly claim inability to do something about. It happens all around you, in your immediate environment; maybe even in your home or office or community or church, mosque, temple or anywhere else you congregate and claim to be secure from the ills of the society. Perhaps you are even a perpetrator of human rights violation, knowingly or not.
Every December 10 marks the Human Rights Day globally and it gives us an opportunity to reason along these lines. This year we are asked to “Stand up for someone’s rights today”, that being this year’s theme. As a human rights activist, this is something that comes naturally. But society would be much better if everyone stood up for another’s rights. For too long, citizens have shirked away from their duties to stand up for others. I often shudder when members of the public keep expecting that some other persons in the society are the only ones to speak up against rights violation. So I keep hearing people say to me, “what are you civil society people doing about this abuse of rights?”
I am often one to remind people that nobody was born to be a human rights activist or has an exclusive preserve to speak up against violation of rights. It is a mark of our humanity that we look out for and speak up against such abuses. Some of us may have taken it upon ourselves through learning and practice to be human rights advocates, but that should not and cannot excuse others from standing up for others whose rights are abused.
When I stand up for someone’s rights, I stand up for humanity; and that includes me. So, as I help humanity, I also help myself for I am part of humanity and humanity is me. This is what we expect every citizen, every human being to do today and every day, if human rights are to remain universal, indivisible, interdependent and inalienable.
We see human rights abuse in full colours everyday even if we do not notice them. It happens when the state and its officials treat citizens with indignity. This happens when agents of the state turn their symbols of authority against the citizens, in the protection of those in power. It happens when citizens are denied their rights to participate in governance, including when government officials refuse to make information about governance open and accessible to citizens. It happens when society denies the right to equality by having different rules for the powerful and the less-powerful; different standards for men and women; when families and friends of those in power get preferential treatment in opportunities, including employment to state and public institutions etc.
Human rights are abused when access to opportunities are limited by virtue of circumstances of birth that determine our places of origin and religion, thus denying us a fair opportunity to compete. It is a breach of human rights for instance to say that two children born of different parents in the same location, who are exposed to the same quality of life and education would, when applying to enter into a higher level of education, suddenly be separated in consideration merely because society has classified them into two different ‘states of origin’. In such a situation their opportunity to progress is determined, not by their intellectual abilities, but by the genes society has artificially and fictionally implanted in them in the name of ‘educationally-disadvantaged’ states, even if that child never grew up in that so-called disadvantaged area.
We see human rights abuses when young women are forced and coerced into sex, sexual exploitation, forceful marriages and early marriages which hamper their health, mental and physical development. We fail to stand up for someone’s rights when we see these things and do nothing, because we are not directly affected. It becomes even worse when we attempt to justify and explain away what has happened. The Nigerian government recently fixed year 2030 as target year to end under-aged marriage. I question the essence of that because the law currently fixes age 18 as minimum for marriage. The 2030 target impliedly means government has set up a moratorium of 14 years within which period the state would condone the crime of marriage of minors. We can, individually and as groups, stand up against this.
Human rights are further violated when people are targeted because of their religion or faith. Across the world, this is happening, not just in the large scale killings by religious fundamentalist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram but even in smaller scales where minority religious views are hardly recognised by the dominant views. It happens when the state takes up the duty of managing citizen’s religious activities, including enforcing religious injunctions on adherents such as payment of taxes to religious groups (zakat, tithes or whatever), religious fidelity (enforcement of lifestyles) and support to pilgrimages. Such state interferences really discriminate against those from minority faiths or those who chose to adhere to no faith at all. These are clear violation of the freedom of belief and religion which every citizen should resist.
What about the right to participate in government and in free elections? This is one right that is routinely abused in many countries, including Nigeria. Wherever an election lacks credibility on account of not allowing citizens the right to freely vote in secrecy without harassment; whenever politicians perfect their vote stealing capability, then human rights are being violated. In Nigeria, the state governments have further worsened the matter by regularly excluding citizens from deciding in free elections who should run the local government administrations. Friday’s decision by the Supreme Court again declaring as unconstitutional the dissolution of local governments by state governments must be celebrated and upheld. Citizens have a duty to stand up for this right to participate. As Wendell Phillips, the American Abolitionist and liberal activist said on January 28, 1852. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”, we must stand up to that, lest we all go down.
How can everyone stand up for another’s rights? It starts with as simple an action as speaking out and speaking up. This goes with the aphorism that the one reason evil persists is because good people do nothing about it. So, as citizens, we must learn not to unduly set up walls of privacy on issues of human rights violation. If your neighbour is maltreating vulnerable persons under him/her, speak up. This is because human rights violation is a crime and must be treated as such, not merely as a domestic and private relationship problem.
The vulnerable persons may be children (especially ‘house helps’ and domestic servants); spouses and extended family members living in with their benefactors. Outside the homes, in our respective communities are also persons with disability whose rights to access public spaces, services and information are routinely abused and disregarded.
Standing up for someone’s rights behoves us to speak up; talk to or confront the perpetrators; or report the abuse to appropriate institutions (police, human rights commission or non-governmental organisations known to work in such area). As the action of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955 showed, sometimes one citizen’s action could be the fillip that could trigger the end of a human rights violation. This year’s theme calls upon each one of us to be like Rosa Parks.