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Posts Tagged ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’

Cyrus Cylinder

IN THE SIXTH CENTURY BC, CYRUS THE GREAT OF PERSIA conquered the Middle East and a large part of Asia. Upon his entry into Babylon, he freed the many captive peoples found there. His magnanimous gesture liberated the Jewish nation and entitled her people to return to Jerusalem with their Temple treasures and begin rebuilding Solomon’s Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. The Prophet Isaiah referred to Cyrus as “anointed by the Lord.”

Cyrus’ legacy as a humanitarian monarch continues to this day. Xenophon, a student of Socrates, wrote The Cyropaedia, a biography of Cyrus which extolled his virtues. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar carried copies with them. America was directly founded under the benevolent monarch model offered by Cyrus’ example. Thomas Jefferson read the Cyropaedia frequently.

Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Cyropaedia

Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia

In 1879 a clay record of Cyrus’ decree was unearthed in the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon in Iraq. Known today as the Cyrus Cylinder this priceless account has been referred to as “the first Bill of Rights.” Our very concept of religious tolerance and personal freedom dates to the mind of the Great Persian King. To liberate slaves of a conquered nation and restore their birthright was an extraordinary concept.

Cyrus’ empire, which we now call the Middle East, was a far-reaching ménage of different cultures and faiths. The Cyrus Cylinder decreed a paradigm for coexistence — a blueprint which established an enlightened order.

Now, in a historic tour sponsored by IHF America, the original Cyrus Cylinder is on loan to the United States from the British Museum. Beginning at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the Cylinder will be on display in Houston, New York, and San Francisco, concluding its visit in Los Angeles in early December 2013. This historic effort is the culmination of almost twenty years of work by the Iran Heritage Foundation.

In addition to the influence of the Cyropaedia on the US founding fathers, its core principles resonate with those of the United Nations. The high-minded concepts fathered by Cyrus in Persia thousands of years ago have found expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Brought to life by John Peters Humphrey and the UN Commission on Human Rights chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Declaration was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948.

eleanor roosevelt - UDHR 2Disregard and contempt for Human Rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people… All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. UDHR

In the aftermath of WWII, the United Nations created a Partition Plan for Palestine which called for an International Trusteeship for the city of Jerusalem. This plan was never given the chance to be implemented. In essence, the blueprint to create two states, with Jerusalem under UN auspices as a religious center for all faiths, was thwarted before it could be realized. Unfortunately for both Arabs and Jews, as well as the world at large, we have all lived with the tragic result.

Originally opposed to the creation of Israel, Eleanor Roosevelt reversed her position when faced with the sad realization that the world community was refusing to allow immigration for the victims of Hitler’s nightmare. The United States itself refused sanctuary after the war just as it had before the conflict. Eleanor supported the Partition Plan and was appalled when the Arab states refused to accept the two state solution.

As the clock ticked down toward the expiration of the British Mandate in Palestine in May of 1948, and under pressure to finalize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor reached a tipping point when George C. Marshall’s State Department reversed its policy at the final moment and chose to appease the oil-producing states and oppose partition of Palestine. Eleanor then decided to resign from the US delegation to the UN. She famously stated in her letter to President Truman, “I cannot believe that war is the best solution. No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war.” Truman did not accept her resignation. But Eleanor realized, ahead of her time, that the United States’ refusal to back the Partition, which included international status for Jerusalem, would critically weaken the credibility of the UN and place the region itself in an untenable situation with regard to long-term stability.

The current Middle East fiasco should defer us once once again to Cyrus the Great for a history lesson. Cyrus’ vision of leadership was a forerunner to the UN 1947 resolution for the future of Palestine. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum stated, “Cyrus set up a model of how you run a great multinational, multifaith, multicultural society . . . It left a dream of the Middle East as a unit, and a unit where people of different faiths could live together.”

Today we must revive that dream or, as history has already chronicled, face disastrous results. Just as a strain of music creates a distinct melody through repetition, we now hear clearly — yet again — the strains of war in the Middle East. It is time for a new refrain, in vision and deed.

Building upon Cyrus’ model, creating a social order which allows the expression of individual cultures and faiths is the avenue to peaceful co-existence and governance. Our present-day Middle East drama calls for us to recognize that we already have the seed for fostering that co-existence. Creating an international peace zone within the Old City of Jerusalem is the key. Those in the United Nations who originally conceived this idea were expressing the wisdom of governance by recognizing that a leap was necessary to actualize peace in the region. They were well aware that the area was of monumental importance to three world religions and that stabilizing Jerusalem was essential to maintaining peace.

               Jerusalem, sacred to the three great monotheistic religions, stands for something higher and more sublime than nationalism. It stands for the ideal which lies behind the very creation of the United Nations itself. Any attempt to oppose by force the internationalization of Jerusalem would be an affront to civilized men everywhere.” — From a letter sent by Reverend Charles T. Bridgeman, former Canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, to the President of the UN Trusteeship Council in January 1950

In his book, The Temple at Jerusalem: a Revelation, John Michell recognized the Old City of Jerusalem itself as the Temple. He saw it as the convergence point for all peoples of all cultures and faiths — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, as well as other spiritual traditions — to unite in peace, a United Nations for all religions.

Pure Vision covThat very concept, expounded by political and religious leaders throughout the world as well as by writers such as John Michell, has found expression through the arts. PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation is a novel based on a return to this noble ideal. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the creation of an international peace zone within Jerusalem as foundational elements, Pure Vision sparks a transformative dialogue. The aim is simple. Once openly discussed, powerful ideas reshape reality.

As Neil MacGregor, Director of the British museum asks, “What story of the Middle East, what story of the world, do you want to see reflecting what is said, what is expressed in this cylinder?”

That question resounds with a fundamental answer — human rights for all. The dramatic tale of the Middle East can change radically, as it has in the past. A region of trauma can once again be transformed into a land where religious freedom and individual dignity is honored. Then Jerusalem can finally become what it is meant to be: The City of Peace.

*****

Article written by Angelina Perri Birney and Lawrence Birney

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Carol Hillman and Hildie

Eleanor Roosevelt’s message will always be relevant. A woman of power, a woman of influence, and a woman of principle, the resonance of Eleanor’s persona only seems to strengthen with time.

Today’s young women appear to be discovering Eleanor anew, and organizations like Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt—a project of Save America’s Treasures—are making certain that her legacy is protected as well as promoted. Founded by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998, Save America’s Treasures, a public-private partnership which includes the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service, aims to preserve the documents, structures and inspiring works of art that are a part of our American heritage.

Carol Hillman, chair of Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, recounts how the organization began. “Hillary Clinton asked Claudine Bacher, our founding chair, to oversee the project. Claudine then spoke to others including my mother, Elsa Resika, to get them on board. Not long before my mother passed away, she urged me to join in.”

The project, as Carol explains, consists of restoring and preserving Eleanor’s Val-Kill home in Hyde Park, NY as well as educating visitors to the historic site about her vast contributions. “Our goal is to ensure that new generations of American’s understand and carry on Mrs. Roosevelt’s legacy.”

Incredibly, the history of that legacy includes both how her mother as well as Carol was affected by Eleanor.

“My mother met Eleanor Roosevelt at a reception in New York City in honor of the play Sunrise at Campobello. Mom had Mrs. Roosevelt autograph a program and then sent it to me at the University of Wisconsin where I was studying. A year or so later, I hosted Mrs. Roosevelt at the university,” Carol relates with a sense of awe. “We invited her to speak and she arrived in a blizzard — the pilot told her she might not land in Madison but in Minneapolis instead. Nonetheless, she took the flight. She told the pilot she had 1300 students waiting for her and she would attempt to get to Madison, which she did. I met her at the airport with Governor Gaylord Nelson. As it turned out, her speech, which I chaired in the Memorial Union Theater, was a rousing success. It was packed to the hilt —standing room only.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, a strong and determined spirit, always did her best to deliver. Inspiring others—especially new generations of young people—to emulate Eleanor’s sense of integrity and her passion for justice drives Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, an organization of dedicated volunteers, to publicly acclaim Eleanor’s legacy, not only through the preservation of her Val-Kill home but through various media projects and events. In particular, the prestigious Following in Her Footsteps Award, highlights a life of public service, lived in pursuit of social justice, peace, human rights and gender equality – some of the groundswells upon which Eleanor Roosevelt rose to proclaim her ideals.

“Our Following in Her Footsteps Award really honors women who have taken on causes that were also very important to Eleanor Roosevelt such as women’s issues, health care, preservation of the environment, and human rights,” Carol Hillman explains. “In 2009, we bestowed the award to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for all of her work regarding health care reform, helping women and children, as well as her work in international relations.”

Secretary of State Clinton is not only the founder of Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, but also a formidable political leader. The former First Lady has forged new horizons in the area of gender equality, and like Eleanor, presents a strong and determined presence, one which encourages intelligent and practical solutions.

Women’s issues, including their leadership roles within all areas of human affairs in the U.S. and internationally, has been a central theme for Secretary Clinton. In March of 2009, along with President Obama, Secretary Clinton introduced a new position: ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, an office at the Department of State which works toward the empowerment of women at all levels — politically, economically and socially. Melanne Verveer is the first to fill this unprecedented seat. Secretary Clinton’s vision, as was Eleanor’s, works toward the empowerment of women and recognizes the importance of their leadership in all walks of life.

Carol Hillman also reflects on this issue, especially regarding how more female leadership can strengthen our chances of really establishing and securing human rights. “I think if you look at Mrs. Roosevelt, who said you must do the thing you think you cannot do, women are willing to do that and to collaborate, to compromise where appropriate and to take personal risks. These qualities, I believe, will help us achieve peace and human rights.” In her years as a businesswoman, Carol has seen this in action. “We tend to allow for more possibilities with regard to solutions. We’re a little more open to things having more than one answer. ”

Yet, women still have a way to go with regard to equality and being more established as leaders—politically, socially and in the business world. Carol offers one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes as a voice of advice.

          Women must become more conscious of themselves as women and of their ability to function as a group. At the same time, they must try to wipe from men’s consciousness the need to consider them as a group or as women in their everyday activities, especially as workers in industry or the professions.

Although Eleanor Roosevelt indicates that women must join forces in accomplishing their goals, she also stresses they must remain individuals in the workplace and in the world at large, so they can establish themselves on their own merit wherever they apply their talents.

But still, as we all know, outspoken women such as Eleanor Roosevelt are criticized harshly at times, even threatened. Carol remarks on how Eleanor is an example for women today even in this regard. “As she was being driven through West Virginia toward her speaking engagements, Eleanor knew the Klan was out and about. She rode past KKK rallies determined to reach her destination no matter what. Now that’s courage.”

And Eleanor consistently asserted that bravery and determination in numerous, unconventional ways, blazing a trail for women’s rights. “In the 1920’s, Eleanor joined the League of Women Voter’s,” Carol points out. “She spoke in favor of contraception availability. She advocated for fair wages for women. Her My Day column was unprecedented.”

In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt was the first woman radio commentator as well as the first woman to write a syndicated column. She also proved innovative in how she employed her power to help establish women in what were male-dominated fields. When FDR became president Eleanor made certain women were involved in the process of establishing the New Deal. She ingeniously held countless press conferences which were only open to female journalists. The result: news organizations had to hire female reporters or they would be left out of the loop.

This ability to brilliantly manifest her ideas by acting simply and directly became Eleanor Roosevelt’s trademark. Her advocacy of women’s rights expanding into human rights, Eleanor’s vista grew even wider with what many consider her crowning achievement. As chairperson for the Human Rights Commission, she helped foster the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which sets the highest standard for human dignity and freedom. The commission’s goal was to create a document that would help prevent another world war and establish an international criteria for human rights recognition which would compel abiding nations to protect these rights.

As quoted in a 2009 Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt newsletter, Secretary of State Clinton made the following statement which appears appropriate for America’s present day challenges. We can all follow in Eleanor’s footsteps . . . The America that inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the America that we love and treasure, is still the shining hope of the world . . .” 

Still, with all of our nation’s current difficulties—the financial crisis, the disastrous Gulf oil dilemma—following in Eleanor Roosevelt’s footsteps would certainly be leading us down a different road. Respect for individual rights would be a foundational element with regard to much-needed policy changes.

“Something like the BP situation probably wouldn’t have happened if we were utilizing Eleanor Roosevelt’s vision for a just society,” Carol Hillman states. “More than likely, more government regulations would be in place. If she had anything to do with policy today, she would look after the people and would feel that the companies involved in such a terrible disaster needed to be accountable.”

Keeping Eleanor’s view in mind, it would also appear she would not have been too happy with our current immigration law difficulties. Carol cites Eleanor’s response to “the self-styled crusader” Gerald L.K. Smith in her My Day column back in 1953, where Eleanor took on, one-by-one, several points made by the clergyman and politician regarding his view of an ideal America.

          The next point would stop all immigration into our country on the basis that there are only enough jobs for Americans and only enough houses for Americans. We built this country on the labor of immigrants and on the humanitarian principles that the Statue of Liberty personifies. We said we were a haven for the oppressed of the world. We can no longer open our doors as we did in the early days because ours is now a highly developed nation, but we are still able to preserve some of our humanitarianism and to profit by the skills and the strength of a certain amount of immigration. It would be wrong, I think, to say that we should take no one into our country from now on.

Carol Hillman and Founding Chair, Claudine Bacher

Controversial . . . outspoken . . . gutsy. Eleanor Roosevelt embodied what many women today aspire to become. And most of us agree: Eleanor’s message is timeless. In October of 2009, at the 125th anniversary of Eleanor’s birthday, Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt’s Chair Carol Hillman and Founding Chair Claudine Bacher placed a wreath at the former First Lady’s gravesite in Hyde Park — an act not only reflecting their deep respect and esteem but also conveying their promise as guardians of Eleanor’s legacy.

And the “First Lady of the World” deserves such deference. As Carol explains, “She stood for the progression of women’s rights. Eleanor would have also wanted to see more care taken of women and children not only in this country but abroad as well.”

          In numbers there is strength, and we in America must help the women of the world.                                                     –MY DAY, October 22, 1946

Could our present First Lady set more of an example with regard to upholding that view. Could Michelle Obama use her position, as Eleanor did, to promote women’s issues?

“My hope is that the First Lady expands her horizons a bit more,” Carol asserts. “It would be good if Michelle Obama invested time into looking at issues regarding the women and children of the world, how they are taken care of in crisis situations, as well as health care and education.” Carol also expresses that if would also be beneficial to see the First Lady involved in preservation work as well. No doubt, Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt’s door would always be open and eager for her involvement.

But at the same time, we do not need to be the First Lady or a famous political leader to help make a difference.

          Let us remember that international achievement, nevertheless, depends on individual achievement, that what we achieve in our own surroundings will spread out like the ripples when we throw a pebble in an unruffled pool. So no one can say what happens to an individual is unimportant, for no one knows how some individual act may ripple out even into international channels.                                                                                        —Eleanor Roosevelt

Carol also reminds us that no effort is insignificant. “There is no small achievement,” Carol remarks. “Everyone has a part to play and that means each person can contribute. We cannot undervalue what anyone does since it becomes a part of the collective effort.”

Only by moving together can we achieve our greatest vision. Eleanor Roosevelt asserted as much. Even the establishment of human rights begins “in small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

Calling us to clarity, Eleanor’s words are succinct and unaffected. Today, her voice resounds through those who, like Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt’s Carol Hillman, uphold her ideals and principles. Gracious and deferential, Carol offers her hope and vision for the future. “I think Eleanor’s comment that ‘staying aloof is not a solution, but a cowardly evasion’ says it all. We must get involved and do the things we think we cannot do for the good of humanity, the world, and our country.”

In a world where evasion is a keyword in our Search Engine, as easy to attain as a push of a button, Eleanor’s assertion is a timeless one. “Eleanor Roosevelt was a passionate patriot as well as a world leader,” Carol affirms. “Her message to all is to take action, get involved, take risks . . . and do the right thing.”

Perhaps that’s exactly what we need. A simple directive from a fearless woman who took on the world as her own.

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                 “. . . recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
                     —Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

Sam Cook

Sitting with Sam Cook in a café in downtown Manhattan, in the financial district no less, to speak about human rights seems downright ironic. Formerly the Project Director of PeaceWomen, a project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Sam is now Director of Communications and Research at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). IGLHRC’s mission is to “advance human rights for everyone, everywhere and to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”

A woman of peace and  fairness, Sam has dedicated her life to human rights advocacy. She reflects on the evolution of the process. “I didn’t have a plan to get either this or that type of job. It was just as my life unfolded, the choices came. I had always been attracted to law as a way to bring justice and a system that everybody was accountable to. So I went to the University of Cape Town law school, not because I wanted to practice, but because I wanted the skills—things like learning how to draft a good contract. Also, I had always been drawn to doing work around gender equality. While getting my law degree, I was interested in writing papers around sexual violence and/or around socio-economic rights. It was like an instinct thing, not really planned.”

Although she may not have had a specific plan in mind, Sam’s perspective naturally lends to giving to others while remaining aware she also has much to gain. “Basically, I wanted to do something that felt like a positive contribution to human beings,” she says, “all the while never being under any kind of illusion that I was going to make any great difference. My approach was more like ‘we all put in something, but we take a lot out.’ Still, I wanted the thing that I put in to be a positive thing.”

Growing up during apartheid in South Africa had its own effects. “On the one hand, of course, being born white, I was privileged in apartheid South Africa. But I grew up with a father who made me aware of the injustices of apartheid and of the privilege that I had because of my race. I cannot pinpoint what parts of my work or my life’s approach are a result of what. I have a low tolerance for injustice in the world, but is that a result of exploring aspects of what it means to be human, or is it a result of seeing massive injustice? Perhaps seeing racial discrimination so blatantly manifested and up close—although not as close as those who lived the discrimination—made me more acutely aware of what discrimination was about. Maybe experiencing the emergence from apartheid and grappling with its effects, both in terms of suffering and privilege, made it easier for me to talk about race more explicitly—something many in the U.S. seem afraid to do. I’m not sure, but overall I believe it is impossible to grow up in such a situation without being profoundly affected at some level.”

With respect to the impact apartheid had on African women in particular, Sam is distinct in stating, “I cannot nor do I want to speak for black women in South Africa. [As a side note, Sam adds that that the term African is not necessarily a helpful one outside of the U.S., and African is also an identity claimed by some beyond those who were racially discriminated against for being black.] But, there are certainly clear examples of how being black and a woman meant a compounded experience of discrimination. As I’m sure many women in the United States who are of African descent or who are black would say, experiencing the intertwined systems of racism and patriarchy is to experience double discrimination and injustice.”

Currently that level of discrimination exists for the LGBT community as well, and shedding light on the difficulties so the public is aware is always a concern. Supporting LGBT equality and empowering those individuals who are working as advocates, Sam explains her role at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission as “trying to find the best way to communicate our work to others, not just to the media.”

Sometimes the venue for that is reflected through how IGLHRC works with advocacy groups around the world. The commission looks at each group’s concerns and really follows the agenda of local activists. “One of the simplest thing we do,” Sam enumerates, “is give a voice to the situation. If activists are working on a particular issue in X or Y part of the world, as a Human Rights organization based in the U.S. and because we’re also near the U.N., we have a voice that policymakers look upon as one of pressure which local activists might not have. We also have more of a voice in the sense that we have a website, we have a mailing list that goes out to thousands of people that can then spread the message of these local activists. So we’re like a megaphone. But at the same time, we’re not a megaphone that will just project any message.”

Sam explains that besides listening to activists’ concerns, IGLHRC makes a real attempt to let people know what’s occurring at the ground level while still trying to follow some strategic global vision. “I think that’s part of the difficulty we face regarding our strategy. Do you come up with a strategic vision that you determine is the best one and then identify the work of local activists which supports that vision, or rather do you listen to all the local voices and then say, ‘Okay, listening to all of this, it seems that the common thread is X or Y, and so how do we do bigger projects that meet those issues?’ I think that figuring out the best way to be a partner and respect the work of local activists while operating under a particular theory of how change happens is something that the organization grapples with very seriously. It’s just a continual process, especially since for a long time the work has centered around the emergency response aspect—like providing limited grants and emergency funds to assist people when they need to get out of a town and get to a safe house, for example. Also, in cases like when gay men are being arrested in Senegal, or there are laws on the books in Malawi where a couple celebrating an engagement ceremony is put in jail, or when a lesbian/gay political party in the Philippines is refused registration, we then assist in responding to that.”

Letter-writing campaigns are another effective but more traditional measure used to create public support. “Basically, we utilize our larger constituency to act as a voice,” Sam explains. “These days a lot goes by e-mail. People get to send a letter to the Human Rights Commission of Philippines or wherever to create some sort of pressure for the decision makers to change the policies. That’s good, of course, but the campaigns do other things. They creates a sense that there is a movement out there as well as generate a sense of support for those who are sitting in jail, like in the AMNESTY model. There’s a consciousness created that you’ve got people on your side. So we are helping people to be more protected. The more people who know about somebody sitting in jail, the less likely that person’s going to disappear or be tortured or abused.”

As far as educating the public about human rights violations or about the discrimination of persons due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, the easiest place to reach an audience is in the United States, but it’s not necessarily the place that needs it the most. “Although there are violations everywhere, including in the U.S.,” Sam emphasizes, “many of the really serious violations are actually happening outside the United States. Torture, sitting in jail, massive killings. These are mostly happening in other countries.”

Clanking coffee cups underscore Sam’s remark. Sitting around us in the café, male and female corporate execs sip their lattes and espressos—the environment acting as a reminder of how much we as westerners take for granted in our corner of the world. Even gay and lesbian issues in America can, for those who have seen far more serious consequences, take on a note of frivolity. Whereas, internationally, there are those who are losing their lives merely by the fact that they are gay, here in the U.S., issues such as allowing gays and lesbians to marry and have families, although serious, are nowhere as lethal as the violations occuring in certain areas of Africa and the Middle East. As Sam indicates, “difficulties like losing your job, or not being able to get married because of your gender identity or orientation may be seen more as concentrating on ‘luxuries’ to activists in other parts of the world.”

It does appear, though, that no matter what the particular contention is surrounding the sexual orientation debate, religious posturing has definitely fueled the fire. Although some religious leaders have diffused prejudice, many have helped create the difficulties and have encouraged human rights violations.

“The immediate thing I noticed,” Sam states, “is that a lot of the work against the human rights of the LGBT community is very much linked to conservative religious forces—religious fundamentalists.”

The Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, introduced last October 2009 is an example. The bill targets lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders, as well as those who support them in any way. Not only does it uphold criminalizing homosexuality, it calls for imprisonment for life for anyone convicted of the “offense,” proposing the death penalty for those who repeatedly engage in same-sex relations. The bill is a human rights nightmare, allowing for the annihilation of those of non-mainstream sexual orientation, as well as wedging another discriminatory block for HIV patients in dire need of proper care.

On the U.S. front, Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced a resolution (H. RES. 1064) calling on members of the Ugandan Parliament to reject the Bill as well as any standing or newly presented laws that criminalize homosexuality. The resolution was passed in the Senate and is now moving through the House of Representatives.

The Ugandan Bill, Sam notes, has been driven by U.S. Christian Fundamentalists. “They have gone there and cultivated relationships with leaders, getting people to promote their conservative Christian agenda. It’s not only in Uganda. They have cultivated relationships with leaders around the world. Conservatives, in general, have pumped their ideas into the human rights field, including women’s rights and LGBT rights.”

Yet, there are also religious leaders who are fighting against this. “There are still many wonderful people,” Sam says. “Even most religious entities who are against recognizing the rights of lesbians and gays to have families or to get married will not sanction people’s lives being criminalized and will not sanction torture of human beings on the basis of their sexuality. The Vatican coming out during an event at the U.N. last December (2009) and saying that they did not condone torture or criminalizing people’s lives was really, really powerful. While they are still negative in a number of other ways, that was really positive. In general, this event helped to bring to the surface and show the support at this basic level.”

Sam’s statement appears true. When the atrocities are exposed, the sheer horror of them can activate people’s compassion and sense of decency. How far are you willing to go to condemn another?  Those previously lending their voice to judgment may find themselves speaking out against governments that torture their citizens based on sexual orientation discrimination.

But shouldn’t this all be falling under the umbrella of human rights? The concept emphasizes that fundamental rights and freedoms belong to every human being merely by reason of being born. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, sets the assertion in writing.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

—Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission utilizes the declaration as a cornerstone for their activity. “I think the Universal Declaration and basic human rights laws are very foundational in this kind of work and are used all the time,” Sam asserts. “For example, when we do a letter to a government that has violated certain rights we can say, ‘Everybody has the right to X or Y, and you are actually discriminating against your citizens by denying them these rights.’ So the declaration is deployed often.”

Putting the rights in a document form gives people something solid they can refer to. “Many people don’t believe in doing things unless they are obliged by something that they see as a legal document,” Sam states. “Sometimes even people who are activists don’t believe they have the right to stand up unless they have the form there—not just because they know that governments won’t respond without it, but because they mistrust their own sense of justice and their own sense of what it is to be human. They are insecure about their own claims.”

So being human is the starting point and, as Sam indicates, IGLHRC begins there as well. “Rather than saying ‘I have a certain kind of right because I am a gay man or a lesbian, our tagline is HUMAN RIGHTS FOR EVERYONE. EVERYWHERE. And that is where we begin. It is so much more powerful because we do have many governments that signed the Charter and accepted the various covenants. We can show that what we’re asking for is an obligation that arises from accepting the document.”

Still, how do you make the concerns of people who are being subjected to sexual identity and sexual orientation discrimination the concerns of the majority?

“Looking at the discrimination of women and how it is detrimental may be easier to do,” Sam says. “When we point things out to men regarding this issue, they may be able to see how it will affect their home and families. But bringing out the discrimination against gays and lesbians or those who are transsexual or bisexual is harder since the majority, not only men, don’t feel personally affected by it as much.”

Could any of this be tied to another aspect of the power structure—the role of women in human rights advocacy? Could more women in leadership roles make a difference including within the arena of LGBT rights?.

“I believe that just being a woman is not enough to balance anything,” Sam states. “I think their have been too many Golda Meirs and Margaret Thatchers who have been militant. Yet, I do feel that women for the most part tend to have an approach to things that will more likely result in social justice. At the same time, qualities that are considered feminine which may be seen as powerful and positive by some people, might be regarded as weak by others. So I think the difficulty with regard to presenting the concept of more women in leadership as actually being an asset in human rights issues throughout the world is in how we talk about it. What are the actual qualities that women may have in more abundance that can help?”

All in all, Sam does say she believes that women in more leadership roles would be helpful. “What I struggle with is how to figure this into the power structures that exist—how to shift what people think of as powerful and impactful and what might be able to bring about human flourishing, without turning it into a competition between the genders, which is what many men have succeeded in doing. It doesn’t have to be that way. I know it would be difficult to talk to a man about women being perhaps more in tune with their nurturing side. So how do I talk about it without forsaking my beliefs, because I don’t want to model that old form of power.”

Yet, by her own example, Sam proves she’s already cast aside the mold. Thoughtful and conscientious, her approach to her own advocacy work is a far cry from the patriarchal model. “I don’t require for my own satisfaction that I be the personal author of things,” Sam states. “I don’t need to see my name on change. I think you have to be that way in order to do work in big political arenas because no individual is responsible for the changes.”

That may be the case, but as Sam reflects, the larger picture still takes its personal toll. “If you do human rights work and you find yourself not crying every now and then or not get angry every once in a while, you need to take a break because letting things touch your soul is part of what drives you.”

Maybe detachment and cynicism are the diseases infecting most of us. Human rights issues are wearisome. We would rather find an escape from the daily grind of suffering, something that entertainment venues like American Idol or Cash Cab offer us. Certainly nothing wrong with that, as long as we pinch ourselves every once in a while and, like Sam, realize we “need a reality check here.”

You know . . . let human suffering touch our souls. Perhaps even let it drive us toward inclusion. 

HUMAN RIGHTS FOR EVERYONE. EVERYWHERE.

 

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Kathleen Durham

Entering the grounds of Val-Kill, one realizes its historic potency. The Hyde Park, NY home of the legendary and much admired “first lady of the world,” Val-Kill seems to resound with Eleanor Roosevelt’s nature . . . staunch, quiet, stately . . . a formidable presence.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Center, located on the site, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to Eleanor’s ideals, preserving and fostering her tenets of compassionate leadership dedicated to social change, justice and human dignity. Kathleen Durham, Executive Director, is its current guardian, making certain that Eleanor’s voice remains heard and her vision active.

Kathleen herself has walked her own evolutionary road which finally led to her current position at the center. She grew up in Richmond, Virginia and attended Howard University. “In my time, many women went to college to find a husband who was a doctor or a lawyer . . . and I didn’t find one. So I kind of took a circuitous route which eventually evolved into actually becoming a lawyer and having a family. I say that because I went to law school after I’d been out of college for twenty years . . . and the other interesting part of it is when I left Howard University, I still needed fifteen hours to complete my degree.”

But as it turned out, life provided Kathleen with the experiences that would literally bring her full circle.

“I was working as Director of Labor Relations for the U.S. Customs Service. People kept saying, ‘You should be a lawyer, you should be a lawyer.’ Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself, I thought, ‘Well, okay, let me just try this.’ I was in my late thirties. I got into all the law schools I applied to and wound up going to Pepperdine in California. I was able to get in by making up the fifteen hours I never completed in college by writing this essay about using my life experiences. When I was graduating, someone said, ‘Come see me, and I’ll help you to become a producer.’ But there were others who told me, ‘Now you’ve got your license, so now you’ve got to go practice.’ The truth of it is my life’s passion would have been producing, but when you look at it, all of life is about producing something, just like I’m doing here at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center. Here I have the opportunity to do that constantly.”

Although after moving to the Hudson Valley in 1988 Kathleen learned  more about Eleanor Roosevelt, her intrigue with the former First Lady really began to grow in 1995.  “I started reading about Eleanor and I thought ‘I have a lot in common with this woman’. I just kept reading and reading and fell in love with her ideals. Eventually I got involved in doing talks here at ERVK for organizations and various trainings. In time, I moved away to Savanna but eventually came back to the area in 2006. In 2008, someone asked me to be on the ERVK Board. Shortly after, I became Interim Director of the center and then Director. So what really drew me here? Well this may sound crazy, but it’s kind of like the universe leads you. You don’ quite know why things are leading in a certain direction. You just kind of move along and sometimes you listen and sometimes you don’t, but when you really do, you may wind up where you’re supposed to be, and that’s what kind of happened to me.”

Inspired by her work and ERVK’s mission, Kathleen feels that the center can really make a difference. “I believe we are Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice and are channeling her ideals so to speak.”

And so it appears. Immersed in Eleanor’s vision and working at ERVK on a daily basis, Kathleen has seen a change in herself—in how she relates to people, how she listens to people, and how she’s more willing to shift her thinking. She takes note that Eleanor’s manner in handling life and work has definitely influenced her.

“When I’m really passionate about something, I go ahead and speak about it and let it be out there. Another important aspect for me is just the fact that Eleanor was able to overcome so many of the obstacles she faced. If I can’t do something like that, then what? She had much bigger obstacles during her time.”

Nonetheless, women today are still facing their hurdles. It’s programs like ERVK’s Girls’ Leadership Workshop that are providing young women with the support and nurturance they need to become leaders. “We’re developing little Eleanor’s,” Kathleen states. “The reason why we even have the workshop is because of Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Everybody talks about what Franklin accomplished, but behind Franklin was Eleanor. Had Eleanor not been there, honestly, I don’t believe Franklin would have done all that he did. Not to denigrate what he did do, but I think her consciousness, her thinking, was powerful. We want to give young people that type of strength to take out into society so they don’t just become consumers of what’s in the world, but they actually contribute to its well-being. And we see that occurring through the eight hundred girls we’ve brought through the program. We hear from them about what’s happening in their lives. One example is this fifteen-year old girl who started her own non-profit called Kids for Causes, where they’re passionate about helping the children of Haiti. At fifteen, was I thinking of anything like that?”

Nourishing and awakening ideas that may have otherwise remained dormant, the Girls’ Leadership Workshop provides not only the training and foundation for the girls to use in their personal growth, but a framework for how to use their confidence to move out into the world. “It’s a personal learning time that evolves into action based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s principles of leadership,” Kathleen explains. “And now we’re even expanding the idea of responsible leadership to include boys. The program is reaching out further.”

Yet, Kathleen agrees, it’s still important to support women’s leadership roles in particular,  whether those are in government, politics, business, education or religion—in all walks of life. “We have more of a history to overcome. Women were not traditionally looked upon as leaders. Even today, I don’t think we’re quite there, even though we have managed to make our way very close to that glass ceiling. Therefore, it’s important that women see themselves as leaders. So whatever can be done to help nurture that, to build their confidence, matters. Women need to be able to say to each other, ‘Yes, you can be a leader.’ And by leadership it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a CEO of a company. Women can provide that leadership in their families as well. As wives and mothers, they’re influencing all the time, and that influence extends to the men and boys in their lives.”

Recently, the achievements of influential women throughout history were honored during the International Women’s Day luncheon (March 8th) at the White House. Praising the extraordinary accomplishments of those such as Dorothy Height [a leader in the African-American and women’s rights movements who passed away the day following this interview at the age of 98], President Obama extolled the great achievements of the many admirable women who offered their gifts to create political, social and economic reform. As an attendee, Kathleen recalls what she learned and how she was moved by the experience.

“I heard a woman from Afghanistan tell a story about how the women in her village were really horribly abused and that out of the experience, she wrote this song which conveyed their determination. Some of the words were something like ‘we will never give up’ and she sang it for us. I could really feel the power of it. Also, in that room there were three hundred women—thirty of them were young women in high school who had gotten the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Michelle Obama. It was just the thirty of them and Michelle. To see these women together from different countries and from all over the U.S. was amazing. During that luncheon, we learned that what might be considered a major issue regarding women’s leadership here in this country may be looked upon quite differently in Afghanistan. So how we as women could learn from each other’s experiences was important. It reminds me of a young woman who came to the Girls’ Workshop whose family had fled from Iraq to Jordan. While here in America, she was learning for the first time that people have human rights. Keeping this in mind, special days like the International Women’s Day are definitely a good thing.”

Although it’s certainly important that we’ve designated a day—International Women’s Day—as a mark of global appreciation for women and their achievements, there is still a long way to go in creating a more balanced paradigm where women are able to offer their talents. Following this current of thought, Kathleen takes a look at how and why more female leadership can strengthen our chances of really achieving and securing human rights.

“I think women are better mediators. Women, in general, are more willing to lay down the ego and look for solutions. They’re caregivers. Great multitaskers. More sensitive to people’s needs. I think they come more from a place where they can step into someone else’s shoes and see what’s going on for them and give up that sort of it’s gotta be this way kind of mentality,” she says, pounding on the table sternly. “I think women can see conciliation. They can be more conciliatory without thinking they’re giving up their you know what.”

And the proof of that exists globally as we connect that conciliation from human rights to the economic field. As more women become financed all over the world with micro loans to start their own businesses, they become assets in the creation and stabilization of peace and security throughout their native countries.

“Women who are developing their micro-businesses are actually strengthening their households,” Kathleen asserts. “They’re earning money. They’re learning how to take care of themselves. It may not necessarily be that they are becoming the head of that household, but because they are able to offer their skills, they are actually contributing to their households. They are empowering themselves and the more they do that, they are bringing a different kind of feeling into the home. At least that’s what people who work on these projects say. As the women become stronger in starting  their businesses, they’ve noticed the men being more supportive of them.”

Kathleen believes this phenomenon is actually helping to create more stabilization and security. “If you think about it, people are the meanest or most hostile when they are faced with needs that they think will never be filled, or that someone else is going to get something that they need as a matter of life and death.”

Throughout all the delicate balancing, and as the dynamics of gender equality swings the pendulum toward more fair and just-minded resolutions, Kathleen indicates women are maturing toward a new level in the process. Once women have built their own confidence more and have brought their voices forward, they’ve got to become inclusive, encourage men to actually enter into the picture. Otherwise it becomes a man vs. woman phenomenon. “And it shouldn’t be that way because what does that do? That’s not a peaceful resolution for anything. If you have great peace in a women’s group and great peace in a men’s group, but you aren’t really getting them together, then where’s the peace in that?”

In short, growth and confidence begin the process but the goal is inclusion and unity. “You’ve got to have that personal awareness first before you can reach out there to make any difference,” Kathleen explain, “and it’s that kind of foundation which many women  haven’t had. So what needs to be developed is the personal awareness that you can do anything. You can. You really, really can. The more that’s inside of you, the stronger you become and then you can take that out into the world. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what  we do with our girls.  To create it in here,” Kathleen says, pointing to her heart. “Because if you got it in here and you channel it in the right direction, you can do the right thing out there.”

Building that strong foundation in women is the key. Then once they are fortified, then it’s back to inclusion. “It should always be about the inclusion thing,” Kathleen exhorts. “Men and women—everyone working together. It’s not just a me thing. The me thing doesn’t get you very far.”

That reflection underscores Eleanor Roosevelt’s core message. Wisdom, vision, leadership. Men and women working toward a peaceful world. Deeply underlying Eleanor’s achievements was a powerful spiritual foundation that fueled her practical applications. As chairperson for the Human Rights Commission, she helped foster the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which sets the highest standard for human dignity and freedom. A political document, the Declaration has a profound spiritual basis. “I guess that spiritual foundation comes from just the basic premise, at least from Eleanor’s perspective, that you don’t have to earn human rights,” Kathleen explains. “They are inherently yours by the nature of your being born. So if you think of yourself being born into this universe, that is the spiritual connection right there—just by the fact that you are a child of God, you inherently have these human rights. And God, or whatever you wish to call [the divine], doesn’t withhold anything from anyone. It’s a giving presence, not a holding back presence. Now, man may give these rights to you in the form of a document, but if you could wake up in the morning and understand: I was born and I’m here. I’m a human being here as a gift from the universe, then that’s the spiritual foundation that I see behind the document.”

It is that very premise which historically always reasserts itself. After years and years of political or military solutions offered and put into practice, human consciousness often makes a leap. Spiritual movements such as those initiated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King invested in a vision that actually propelled humankind forward. Kathleen remarks that “while we’re certainly concerned about all the wars that are occurring, there may be growth that could eventually come out of all of it—there could be some forward movement. Perhaps we’ll get to a point where we will say, ‘Well, I don’t like the war, but what can come out of it now?’ As for the political aspect, you don’t have to view politics as a bad thing, even though it’s come to be seen that way these days. There may be good reason for that, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Eleanor Roosevelt was an amazingly astute political person. These days we’ve come to make political mean something bad. But if we think that being political could be a good thing, then that might move us to the place where we want to be. I can envision that happening.”

That’s what Eleanor was doing—taking the political and infusing it more with the spiritual, taking a look at how we govern and integrating it with humane values, not with a particular religious view, but with a spiritual one. “Somehow we’ve made spiritual and religious the same and they’re not,” Kathleen comments, “so there’s the fight about well there’s religion and state. But it’s not like that. There’s really the spirituality of it which is how you relate in this universe to another human being. If that could be the basis for your political statement, what a beautiful world that would be.”

It’s just that kind of statement that makes Eleanor’s message relevant to all of us—men and women alike.

“Take a look around you,” Kathleen states “The same things that Eleanor talked about so many years ago are still right here. So sometimes I say, ‘Well, let me go back and look at what Eleanor was thinking about this.’ Let’s say health care for example. What was she thinking about that? What was she thinking about unemployment? What was she thinking about women? How was she dealing with those issues and how are we dealing with them now? What can we learn from her about it all? She still stands out as being very much a relevant figure even though so many years have passed. She was a transformative person, and I think when you’re transformative, then your ideas have no relationship to time.”

Eleanor’s quotes seem timeless as well. In an era where fear-based dialogue jabbers its way through our political venues, both in government and in our society at large, Kathleen offers one of Eleanor’s quotes that seems especially pertinent:

He who builds with alarm never builds anything.

“If you think about things right now,” Kathleen enumerates, “the conversation in the world is all about,  ‘Oh my God, this is happening. That’s happening. We can’t do this. We don’t have that.’ Well, if that’s your conversation and you’re  scared of what’s going on around you, then how are you going to build anything. How are you going to do it?”

Kathleen indicates the foundation is already faulty. “When you’re starting from fear to build anything, it’s going to crumble. You’re not really putting courage or persistence or persuasiveness into it. You’re not fueling the situation properly.”

Some sage counsel, but there’s more to come. Kathleen offers yet another of Eleanor’s quotes she holds dear.

Do one thing everyday that scares you.

“That one has a lot of power for me,” Kathleen divulges. “Do one thing everyday that scares you.”

A little sound guidance coming through the ages from the steward of Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy .

“It kind of gives me some joy to just think about it,” Kathleen says with a smile. “Okay, what’s one thing I can do today that scares me?”

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to ask.

****

The Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill is a nonprofit organization that fully embraces Eleanor Roosevelt’s call to build a better world through far-reaching programs that touch people worldwide – to be her heart, hand, and voice in realizing that better world.

Visit the ERVK site to find out more about their programs and upcoming events.


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The power of women to change the world is evident.  Former First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt never stopped working for “the common man.”  Famous for her social and political beliefs, she did not hesitate for a moment to back reforms which were unpopular and risky. The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s rights, Social  Rights of the poor and disenfranchised—Eleanor always found her voice, speaking out and delivering a clear message regarding her stance.

                Strong and independent, Eleanor was a woman of great compassion and generosity. Her love of humanity reached the highest of levels as the first U.S. representative in the United Nations and as a chairperson and highly regarded member of the UN Commission on Human Rights. While in that position, she helped create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Beyond her status as former First Lady, Eleanor’s qualifications for such a monumental task was her conviction that every person’s dignity and rights had to be protected. Her hope was that the Declaration would eventually be recognized throughout the world and that all nations would come to honor it.

                But Eleanor Roosevelt’s assertions represented only the beginning of a long and ongoing effort for women to become more involved in peace issues at an international level. Over sixty years after the Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations, the struggle for international rights continues. As far as female activists are concerned, that  long and arduous road has led to the modern heroine—a dedicated, passionate woman who understands her involvement with the world’s struggle for peace and equality isn’t just a choice. It’s a must. The days of listening to devastating news reports and shaking our heads are over.  It’s time to put our hearts on the front line.

                Angelina Jolie, an academy award-winning actress, proves over and over again that she is in touch with the world and does not hesitate to use her status as a superstar to voice her concerns. A global citizen, she works tirelessly as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a UN agency that delivers assistance to tens of millions of refugees around the globe.

                A powerful woman who uses her voice . . . you bet. Angelina uses her ability to draw high media coverage to raise awareness of the tragic and heart-breaking conditions of  refugees, conditions so often not given proper media attention. If anyone is to be characterized as fearless, we must give credit where credit is due. Although we can probably be certain that Angelina has been in quite dangerous circumstances because of her beliefs and her desire to help, she has nonetheless gone beyond her fear, which is the true meaning of being fearless.

                As women, that’s our test. Can we go beyond our fear? Can we assert our beliefs and become voices of peace even when the situation is risky and will most definitely be be met with resistance?

                One thing is certain: It is imperative that more women become part of the peace process no matter where that is. In Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur. The list, unfortunately, seems endless. But it is certainly time for women to be active, not only talking about resolution, but willing to get out there and stand in the streets, offering their presence wherever necessary.

                Now, does it mean that women are  waging war against men if they take such a stance?

                Of course not.

                Does it mean we would be waging peace, trying to balance the feminine with the masculine to create a saner and safer world?

                Yes, exactly.

                No doubt Eleanor would agree.  “No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war.”

                Sometimes the simple truth says it all.

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