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Sara Weinberger: Rights that go unheralded

The term “human rights” may prompt some to see dark-skinned Somali children with distended stomachs; desperate families waiting to cross the Syrian border; or tortured prisoners in Abu-Graib. Organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch may come to mind, as well as the daily stream of Internet petitions that implore us to take a moment to demand that those in power halt an execution, stop a deportation, or enact stricter gun laws.

In other words, attention is focused on violations of human rights, rather than a recognition of the relevance of human rights have in our daily lives.

My intention is to make the topic of human rights local as well as global. The concept of human rights demands that each of us be treated in ways that affirm our humanity and foster our potential as human beings. Eleanor Roosevelt came up with a vision for a world in which everyone, with no exceptions, is accorded the basic rights necessary to validate their dignity and worth. These rights are spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

It’s the greatest entitlement program on the planet, yet few of us know it exists. Even fewer have read this document, which has been adapted so it can be universally understood regardless of age, ability, or language.

Human rights education is the basis of grassroots movements around the world. Bangladeshi girls learn about their rights through a comic book character named Mina and Australian children watch a television cartoon show, “Finding My Magic,” which educates them about their rights and the importance of standing up for others. Women in Gambia use human rights language as a tool for organizing against the practice of female circumcision. This education is not found in most schools in the United States.

The declaration itself calls for education that, “shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”

If we don’t know we have rights, we have no basis for claiming them. Education about human rights helps children see they and all people are worthy of respect and fair treatment. The flipside of respecting human rights is learning the responsibility to respect the rights of others.

A community that affirms the humanity of all its members is a community that doesn’t tolerate bullying, verbal or physical violence, or any of the many “isms” that violate our dignity and stifle our potential.

The Northampton Human Rights Commission, of which I am a member, was established by the City Council in 1998 to advocate for the civil rights of all in the city.

The commission is guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a portion of which is read and discussed at each meeting. The declaration provides an important tool not only to advocate for members of our community whose rights have been violated, but to understand the impact of local, national and global policies on these rights.

Many Valley activists work to safeguard our human rights. Last August, the Human Rights Commission, along with City Councilors Maureen Carney and Paul Spector, joined with Western Massachusetts Jobs with Justice to co-sponsor the Right to Organize resolution that urges city employers to “agree not to express an opinion either pro or con on the merits of unionization” and to “abide by their employees’ decision when a majority indicates that it supports union representation.”

Since the council unanimously passed the resolution Aug. 6, 2012, 17 Northampton employers, who were honored at a special recognition ceremony April 6, have agreed to abide by the resolution.

This is a great start to insure the human right to organize, spelled out in Article 23 of the declaration: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

Western Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, a coalition of almost 70 organizations, has worked since 1993 to to help working people improve their standards of living, win job security and protect the right to organize.

At a time when other cities and states are trying to break unions, Jobs with Justice continues to be the “squeaky wheel” working to insure that — as the declaration put it — “everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

I’m looking forward to seeing a long list of employers honored at next year’s recognition ceremony.

Sara Weinberger of Northampton, a retired professor of social work, writes about human rights issues on the third Monday of the month. This is her inaugural column.

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