Opinion: The issue of human rights is on life support. Here’s how to save it


I once heard Jimmy Carter say that in a war there are no human rights. With the fighting in Ukraine and in Gaza front and center, that observation seems more profound than ever. Human rights as an issue may be on life support.

There are so few great examples of progress to look to. Maybe just one — Northern Ireland, finally.

In addition to major war zones, human rights are being trampled in so many places that it requires an effort to keep up with the havoc. Old alliances are cracking if not broken. Displaced people clamor for shelter and safety. The number of deaths is enormous, the disruption epic.

The Council on Foreign Relations maintains a conflict tracker — its orange markers dot the globe. Wikipedia maps an even broader set of armed conflicts. Hostile actions are killing folks in Sudan and western New Guinea, Haiti is near collapse, criminal violence pervades Mexico, thousands die in Syria year by year.

Some of the violence is especially barbaric, as at the music festival in Israel on Oct. 7. Hostages are held for long periods of time in Russia, China, Egypt and now Gaza. Nearly a million Palestinians are fleeing any which way, seeking safety from the promised invasion of Rafah.

The consequences are obvious but hard to fathom. The old and the very young die first. Famine follows war; disease follows famine, and young adults and the middle-aged die too. Women are especially vulnerable to sexual violence, with effects that can last for a lifetime. Scores are left homeless.

Decency and sanity demand that we address these catastrophes, however massive and intransigent.

We can start by reminding ourselves about the goal. Reread the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, written under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt. It remains a clear call for how the world should treat its people. Or look to Pope Francis’ “Dignitas Infinita,” the Catholic Church’s call to, “without fanfare, in concrete daily life, fight and personally pay the price for defending the rights of those who do not count.”

But how? Support those who run toward conflict and danger, who document events, who demand accountability: volunteers and U.N. workers, journalists on the ground and peace negotiators. Groups such as Doctors without Borders, the World Kitchen, the Red Cross/Red Crescent and Amnesty International, where I once worked. (Do your homework; not every group has staying power.)

Find a part of the world you want to help and don’t forget that it might be next door. Talk to people you disagree with. Seek things you can agree on.

Simply put, the world is shaking from violence. It needs to shake from decency. We need to regain our hope and confidence for the future.

Is this foolishness, an impossibility given the metastasizing violence? I think not. Wherever you are, whatever else your responsibilities and commitments, you can vote, meet, organize, listen, donate time and money.

We must get human rights out of intensive care, resurrect our commitment to it. We need it home safe to protect us all.

Jack Healey, a former director of Amnesty International USA, is the founder of the Human Rights Action Center. He is the author of “Create Your Future: Lessons from a Life in Civil and Human Rights.”



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Kevin harson

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