Camellia Travels the World: Human Rights vs. human rights

September 13, 2019

It has been a week since the program started, and we have been contemplating the concept of “Human Rights” vs. “human rights”. In short, Human Rights is a regime of governance working to advance it from the top-down level, while human rights is an array of struggles against oppression from the bottom-up. This is the guiding rubric of our whole journey; we do not only compare countries and their human rights issues, but also learn different forces that promote and defend human rights.

For that purpose, we are constantly dipping our toes into both waters, and I have to say, I am caught in a maze by the diverse range of organizations and their fascinating works fighting for human rights from all levels:

These are our “classrooms.” On the left is the renowned LGBT Community Center in Manhattan, and on the right is a multi-purposed building called Mayday Space in Brooklyn. Even though both buildings are associated with human rights, there is a distinctive disparity of influence and resources.

Visits for Human Rights. We paid a visit to the U.S. Mission to the UN, speaking with a senior adviser of Human Rights and Social Affairs and learning the U.S. efforts on promoting Human Rights around the world. We went to the office of elected officials, studying their contribution for the people of their districts; we talked with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, learning their specific work in defending Human Rights as International NGOs. Apart from these organizations who directly lobby for Human Rights, there is one organization that astounded me. Witness is an organization that teaches and uses the power of video and technology to promote and defend Human Rights. It does not directly lobby for human rights, but they help others to produce more effective videos and avoid potential harm. The group has offices around the world and its work consists of three layers: on the ground with activists, working as guidance for movements, and connecting with big tech platforms. Besides their unique approach for advocating human rights, their ethics impressed me as well. As we were talking about blurring faces in videos in order to protect victims and activists, our speaker also brought up the issue of privacy of perpetrators: should Human Rights apply to all humans, even if one is a violator or abuser of these Rights? This is a very complicated question to ponder. (To learn more about Witness: https://www.witness.org/).

The Twitter Post of U.S. Mission to the UN about our visit.

Visits for human rights. We met with many grassroots activists and organizations fighting for different rights, criminal justice, labor rights, economic justice for Jews, and housing justice. To explore more about grassroots organizations and their work, we were invited to a celebration dinner for housing justice at Mayday Space. We met many organization leaders who fought for new rent laws in New York. For many years, the tenants of NYC had been suffering from landlords’ violation of rights for just housing: shortly-posted evictions, constant rent increases, high deposits, inadequate repair services, and so on. They had been suffering for twelve years, and finally, they won the battle. After months of demonstration outside of the capitol and sixty-two people mass arrests, they have changed the rent laws. One elder lady also told us an anecdote of her victory: “A few of us went to the landlord’s house on a Sunday morning. We knocked on his door, and after a few minutes, he opened the door without checking who is outside. Then, we handed him an eviction notice. He was so mad, and he called the police. We ran to the yard and stuck the eviction notice everywhere onto the fence before the cops got here.” The event truly showed the solidarity of communities; the group is very diverse: different age groups, different races, different languages, etc. Yet, they united to fight for their own rights as well as all the tenants of New York. (To learn more about new rent laws in New York: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/21/nyregion/rent-laws-new-york.html). I am truly inspired by their courage and action to challenge the system and gain their rights.

Even though it has only been one week of learning and unlearning, I am overwhelmed by the depth we have gotten into, and I am grateful for all the opportunities to talk with different organizations and workers dedicated to human rights. This is truly an experience one can never get in a classroom. Alright, one week done, fifteen more to go!

Parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations.


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