Indifference is not an option for Soroptimists

Soroptimist International headquarters has released their report on the UN DPI/NGO Conference at UNESCO in Paris September 2008. Its theme was reflecting the fact that the Declaration was signed 60 years ago and despite this, Human Rights are often not observed by many governments and women are still struggling for their rights.

Some highlights are below, as compiled by the Margaret Cook, SI Assistant Programme Director, were shared in a report, which was shared on the SI blog:

There were 537 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) from 74 countries registered and SI was represented by President Margaret and Assistant Pprogram Director, Margaret Cook, as well as Dominique Mertz, Marie Christine Gries and Yseult Kaplan, three of our UN Representatives at UNESCO. With us were three young, self-funded Soroptimists: Maggie Memmott, Shireen Lackey and Gina Oliveri. They were able to attend because NGO’s had been encouraged to seek participants under 30 years of age (for which they qualified) – a really good move – which allowed us to have a larger delegation. Yes there were three Margarets!

The many workshops reflected how groups defend human rights and work to establish them- especially in the lives of girls and women. President Margaret observed that “to be in the conference room lined with portraits of members of the Committee who drafted the first Declaration of Human Rights was a great honour! The first chairperson of this Commission was Eleanor Roosevelt who played an instrumental role in the drafting. At a time of increasing East West tension Mrs. Roosevelt used her enormous prestige and credibility with both superpowers to steer the process towards its successful completion.”

Education and empowerment were the words that Maggie Memmott felt were central to many of the speeches and discussions. Her recommendation for action by Soroptimists is to educate and be educated! She attended a workshop ‘Dreams In Action, the Millennium Development Goals Realized: How to Design Human Rights Issues into the Classroom Curriculum to Inspire Leadership, Creativity and Social Justice’ which illustrated the necessity of education and empowerment. She says: “The speaker described a school in a very impoverished area of South Los Angeles who were taught core subjects using the Millennium Development Goals as a framework. Junior high students are encouraged to make a difference for others today no matter how little they have themselves. Students and parents are empowered by experience of volunteerism and giving in their local community as well as even poorer villages and more disadvantaged students in Honduras. The curriculum is available free from”

NGOs have a great role to play, being on the ground, observers of any sign of tension and able to alert institutions if there is a risk of resurgence or emergence of a conflict. We observed that ’Reaffirming Human Rights’ is:

  • to defend the Universality of the Declaration
  • to affirm the indivisibility of the principles in the Declaration
  • to educate people on Human Rights, young and adults, particularly the poorest
  • being without illusion about learning from history- history does not mean progress
  • being aware that peace needs to be constructed- it is not inscribed in human genes
  • to reflect on new emerging Human Rights to be defined and defended (rights to resources, to welfare, right of nature itself…)
  • to reflect on the duties of mankind- developing a Declaration of Human Duties?

Yseult Kaplan asks ‘What do I retain from this Conference?’. Words that have struck me were challenge, citizen, indifference, dignity, universality, fear, words. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been reaffirmed and has to become reality as it is not more difficult to defend now than it was 60 years ago, despite the impact of its violations and legislative texts against it. The ultimate object of the debates was also to extend a challenge to Civil Society and its capacity to structure itself to defend the Human Rights. It is civil society who has the rights and it is up to it to maintain its rights.

There was regret that the event has not received the attention and information which it deserved on the part of the media. The forecourt of the Paris Town hall was closed instead of being a forum for discussion of the state of Human Rights. One has to say ‘NO’ to indifference and let the principles announced in the Universal Human Rights Declaration enter into daily reality of all citizens of this planet.

Dignity, cornerstone of the Human Rights, will be real when all its standards are applied. Debates on the achievements of Human Rights in situations of insecurity, of violence and conflicts have highlighted the depth of ethical principles scorned and the observation of a series of crises utilised to limit Human Rights in the world. One has to concentrate not only on the victims but also on the aggressors. The issue of Human Rights must be revisited under the aspect of universality and of the critical consequences of globalisation. “The fight is ahead of us, not behind us” Stephane Hessel confirmed. He was one of the original team who drafted the document 60 years ago. Now in his nineties he spoke without notes and with a strength of purpose.

To conclude I would refer to the keynote remarks of Ingrid Betancourt.  What has struck her and attracts her attention in the world that she finds after her release after 6 years of captivity? It’s the appearance of insidious fear, fear of fear, fear of others, fear of other cultures, and also fear of being wrongly judged, this last one often preventing us from going to the end of our thoughts. One has to have the courage to say the truth, she confirms, and one has to insist on the importance of the word and the fact to be able to express oneself with the purpose of promotion and protection of Human Rights.

There is one thing certain- Soroptimists cannot and must not rest. Their awareness raising, advocacy and action is needed in the field of human rights.

Posted in SI News.