A New Year’s wish: Human Rights for all

UN emblemBelated Human Rights Day greetings to all. In case you missed it, Human Rights Day was celebrated around the globe on December 10. It was the 69th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, 1948.

Admittedly, some of us have done a little better than others with this. But before we Americans get to feeling righteous, it’s worth noting that the U.S. is among a handful of countries (Russia, Palau . . .) which have not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW.) We’re okay with the Convention Against Torture, but not with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s complicated.

Are women’s rights human rights? What about immigrant rights? Or the rights of workers (tech geniuses, janitors, whomever) to good working conditions? Or the rights of Yemeni refugees to food and shelter?

Fran & Ally McKinney 12.10.17

The author with Ally Timm

One person who believes human rights apply to all of us is Allyson McKinney Timm. Timm spoke recently at Calvary Presbyterian Church, trying to explain the UDHR (and a lot of complicated UN acronyms) and why human rights are basic to Christianity – as well as other religions. “Human rights,” she explains, “are inherent, apply to every individual based solely on the fact of being human. The only requirement is being a member of the human race.”

In the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a document worth reading) “Member States…pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,”

We wish.

Ally McKinney Timm was a successful attorney with a high-powered San Francisco law firm, advocating for justice in the juvenile prison system, when she left that comfortable life to move to Uganda and establish a field office of the International Justice Mission, defending widows and children there. She previously worked with the Rwandan genocide trials. Eventually she returned to Yale, first teaching human rights in the law school and then earning a Master of Divinity degree. All of those credentials and experiences led Timm to found Justice Revival, which she now serves as Director. Having witnessed the worst of what happens when human rights are denied, she has a determined passion for Justice Revival and its mission: to inspire, educate, and mobilize Christian communities to defend human rights for all. (Some conservative Christian organizations have been at the forefront of successful efforts to keep the U.S. from ratifying CEDAW, which is designed to eliminate discrimination against women.)

Eleanor Roosevelt UN monumentAnother woman with a passion for human rights was Eleanor Roosevelt. Wife of Depression-era President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country’s longest-serving first lady was among many other things, the first U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Her pivotal work on creating – and securing near-unanimous support for – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights won Mrs. Roosevelt an accolade never seen before, or since: a standing ovation for one of its members by the entire United Nations Assembly.

About that Declaration, and what it proclaims? Just a few of the basic rights to which every human on the planet is entitled include:

Life, liberty, security and equality

Freedom from discrimination

Freedom from torture and cruel or degrading punishment

Privacy: freedom from interference with home, family

Freedom of religion, conscience, belief

We wish.

You can read the entire document here. If there were ever a better roadmap to peace on earth, it would be hard to find.

Happy New Year, wherever on earth you may be. And God bless us every one.

Peace Day quietly came & went

Dove peace

Dove peace (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In case you missed it, the International Day of Peace was celebrated recently. Its official date was September 21, and the word is there were “festivals, concerts, a global Peace Wave with moments of silence at noon in every time zone, and much more.” But I think the word wasn’t spoken very loudly.

In 1981, when Peace Day was unanimously and officially established by the United Nations, there were plenty of signs it might not easily gain traction. Ronald Reagan was inaugurated — which brought us that “peace through strength” business, demonstrated by bombing Libya and selling arms to Iran for the Contras. President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in Egypt and a few months later Israel annexed the Golan Heights. It’s been pretty much downhill ever since.

Still, Peace Day ought to have its day. In areas where it does get celebrated there’s a lot of dancing in the streets, lighting of candles in windows and — most peaceful of all if you ask me — moments of silence. It’s hard to commit violence when you’re keeping quiet. Or, for that matter, if you’re dancing in the streets instead of blowing up things.

I think we shouldn’t give up on Peace Day. We now have the word from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saying he has some interest in peace, and our President Obama saying the U.S. would like peace, and maybe Iranian-American relations would be a good place to start. Mr. Obama admitted right off that Peace Day wasn’t always historically possible. “The idea that nations and peoples could come together in peace to solve their disputes and advance a common prosperity seemed unimaginable” before the U.N. came into being, were his exact words.

In his address to the U.N. (quoted above) Mr. Obama zipped through an extensive list of warlike actions and circumstances in which the U.S. as well as just about every other country on earth has hardly seemed bent on achieving peace of any sort. But I do like his closing paragraph:

“I know what side of history I want to the United States of America to be on,” our president said.  Essentially, the side that maintains freedom and equality for all. “That is why we look to the future not with fear, but with hope.  And that’s why we remain convinced that this community of nations can deliver a more peaceful, prosperous and just world to the next generation.”

So let’s hear it for Peace Day. Even if it’s not yet quite gotten its day.

Finding common ground with Mr. Putin

I was talking with my new friend Shanelle recently (a good new friend to have, here’s your introduction) about a conversation she had with a friend who opposes access to abortion.

“I started with points we agree on,” she says. “We agree we both want children to be loved and cared for. We agree on use of contraceptives and family planning. We disagree on access to abortion — but we do have those things in common to build on.”

It occurs to me this principle is a pretty good one, especially after reading Mr. Putin’s personal letter to me. OK, it wasn’t strictly personal to me, but Russian President Vladimir Putin did specify in his recent letter in the New York Times that he was speaking directly to the American people, so that’s me. Probably you too. And despite the fact that Mr. Putin and I do not have a huge amount of things in common, I found a sizable list of points of agreement. For instance:

“Insufficient communication between our societies?” For sure. I’m willing to bet there are vast numbers of Russian grandmothers who, if they could communicate with American grandmothers, would have a primary mutual interest in keeping our grandchildren out of battle zones. Given a chance to communicate with each other, we could hammer out a way to do this. Absent that chance, we would applaud our leaders if they will please find a way to keep our grandchildren out of battle zones.

“No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations.” Goes almost without saying. What else have we got?

“There are few champions of democracy in Syria.” Yep. Sad, but I think we can agree on it.

“We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.” What a concept. You could get agreement on this from the majority of grandmothers, mothers and women in between. Probably also a lot of guys.

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Now we’re getting a little touchy. But if you are honest with yourself, we might agree on this point too.

I rather liked Mr. Putin’s closing zinger: “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” Amen, Vladimir, amen.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s enduring presence

English: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Li...

English: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum ID #65732 Eleanor Roosevelt at United Nations (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the agonies of a too-long and too-bitter campaign were drawing to a happy — for a winning percentage of us at least — conclusion, another milestone slipped by: the 50th anniversary of the death of Eleanor Roosevelt. The great writer/ speaker/ activist  and long-suffering (though few knew at the time) wife of New Deal President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962. She and FDR moved into the White House a few months before I was born. When she moved out after his death nearly a dozen years later, she never skipped a beat in her own career of promoting justice for all. I remain a fan.

It’s heartening to find she has new generations of fans, including adventure/travel blogger Lesley Carter, who runs this ER quote across several pages: “The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.” Eleanor’s experiences, which included riding elephants in India and exploring the mysteries of Africa, Asia and beyond, nearly always highlighted her passion for promoting peace and justice at home and abroad. At the time I met her, global peace seemed a far more attainable goal than it does today.

It was the fall of 1953. I had just turned 20, graduated from college, settled happily into an apartment in downtown Richmond, VA with my sister Mimi and college roommate Pat, and landed my first full-time job with a local public relations firm. Mimi was dating a dashing young reporter for radio station WRNL named Roger Mudd; I was dating a dashing young political cartoonist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch named Hugh Haynie. The world was our oyster.

My PR firm had landed the job of arranging for Mrs. Roosevelt’s speech in observance of United Nations Day, an event planned for Richmond’s Mosque Theater and made somewhat controversial by the fact that it would be open to anyone – since she did not speak to segregated audiences. This, among other things Rooseveltian, did not sit well with James Kilpatrick, the arch-conservative segregationist editor of the afternoon newspaper, The Richmond News Leader.

I snagged the plum assignment of meeting Mrs. Roosevelt at the Richmond Airport, which at the time consisted of a Quonset hut beside several runways, out in Henrico County farm country. There were several of us in the delegation; it did  not hurt that my father was then chairman of the Virginia United Nations Association.

In the time it took Mrs. Roosevelt to travel from New York for the one-night visit, Kilpatrick had published a vitriolic editorial, condemning just about everything she stood for beyond motherhood and apple pie. We took a copy of the paper to the airport so she could read it on the way into town, since there would only be a few minutes to spare between her arrival at the hotel and the press conference scheduled just before dinner and the event. I remember being introduced to her, and subsequently being called by name every time she spoke to me, a small but extraordinary gift I think she conferred on everyone she met.

We had seen a draft outline of Mrs. Roosevelt’s speech. It was all about international friendship and cooperation, the importance of education, global health needs – essentially the same issues she would probably be addressing today. How, I wondered, would she possibly get to her significant national/international subjects in light of the unavoidable local hostility? The press conference was barely underway when hands went up all over the room, and questions were shouted, asking for a response to the News Leader editorial.

She smiled broadly at the writers and reporters who packed the room.“I understand,” Mrs. Roosevelt said, “that your new editor is very bright, very talented – and very young.” She paused. “Over the years, I have learned to have great patience with youth.” Then she smiled again and took the next question.

Ah, so. But Mrs. Roosevelt, I suspect, would approve of the youthful President just re-elected to the job her husband held eight decades ago.

The Peace prize & the 20th Century

While applauding Mr. Obama, I’m among those who wish the Nobel folks had waited. I do hope peace might actually, some day, happen in the world, but given last century’s record, things are chancy at best.

My father, born in 1897, used to talk a lot about world peace. His father, born just after the end of the Civil War, lost two of his five sons to World War I, but he took comfort in the certainty that peace would abound from then on. He died in the mid-1930s, presumably not looking very closely at Germany.

My father was an eternal, though not unrealistic, optimist. The afternoon we learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed we gathered around the Philco radio to listen to Mr. Roosevelt, and my father talked about what a terrible thing war was. But for a few years we had that one, the last ‘good’ war. There was optimism after it ended but not much peace, because we plunged right into the Cold War.

In 1953 my father — Earl Moreland was his name, he was a good guy — was president of the Virginia United Nations Association and brought Eleanor Roosevelt to Richmond to speak on — world peace. It was a plum for my fresh-out-of-college first PR job and a memorable time for me, since I got to pick up Mrs. Roosevelt at the quonset hut that passed for Richmond’s airport at the time and watch that singular lady in action. She was eloquent and reservedly hopeful. For a while in the 1950s peace seemed dimly possible, if you could look beyond SEATO and the Geneva Accords and a few issues with Communism, and ignore (as many of us did) the plight of the Palestinians.

Then came Vietnam. If that war seemed endless, which it was, at least after we made our ungraceful exit there was another tiny hope that somehow there might be a little peace… as long as you ignored the North/South Vietnam problems and weren’t looking at Israel and Palestine.

My father was a big fan of Anwar Sadat. When Jimmy Carter managed that little sit-down with Mr. Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David, I was visiting my father at his home a hundred or so miles south. This time we hunkered in front of the little living room TV set, and I remember my father saying “By George! I think we could see peace over there one day.” Well, we did hope. Of course, by then it was getting close to time to start looking at Afghanistan, a country many Americans (certainly including this one) thought of more as a storybook land than a real place where one bunch of people have been fighting with another bunch of people since time immemorial.

The rest is (more recent) history. It will be evident that this space is not the History Channel, but more precisely one woman’s view of the 20th century and the peace in our time that didn’t exactly happen. American Nobel peace laureates Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, George Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Kissinger — MLK, definitely a peacemaking sort but Henry Kissinger? — and Jimmy Carter didn’t formulate much 20th century peaceable wisdom for their 21st century follower.

Barack Obama is a believer, in hope, and peace, and possibilities. I wish him well.