On the eve of the worldwide commemoration of Human Rights Day, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, today led in New York’s historic Harlem neighborhood, a public reading of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This year, as Human Rights Day, marked annually on 10 December, coincides with the launch of the International Decade for People of African Descent, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) hosted the commemoration in New York to link the two events.
By taking this event to Harlem, a symbolic location for people of African descent in the United States, it highlights the human rights struggle by African-Americans and people of African descent that continues until today.
The historic Schomburg Center, itself a cultural touchstone, was established in Harlem in 1905 as a research library and an archive repository for information on people of African descent worldwide.
“We are here today to share some of the highlights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – our first and historic global statement of the rights that are inherent to all human beings. Mr. Eliasson said, underscoring that “human rights are for everyone, without distinction of any kind – wherever we live, whoever we are, irrespective of opinions, ethnic origin, skin colour, sexual orientation, or any other status.”
Hailing the Center as “a great partner with us in the UN for a long time, organizing exhibits on ending racial discrimination and remembering also the shame of the transatlantic slave trade, he said “we all know that Harlem occupies a unique position in American culture and in the history of peoples of African descent.”
From poet and playwright Langston Hughes – “whose life, indeed his ashes, are commemorated in this beautiful room and space” – to Duke Ellington, Colin Powell and Maya Angelou, Harlem has been home to some of the greatest African-American leaders, writers, musicians, academics and artists, he said.
“And Harlem of course also has a central place in the human rights narrative both of the United States and of the world. Harlem provided the cultural backdrop, if I may say so, to the civil rights movement and to the struggle for better schools, for jobs, for equal access to housing and fair treatment in the courts of law,” said Mr. Eliasson.
The Schomburg, he continued is also an appropriate place to mark two occasions, the first being Human Rights Day, when the world gathered on 10 December, 1948 to commemorate the signing of the landmark Declaration on Human Rights. “Protecting and promoting human rights is at the heart of what the UN does, every day, all over the world. And violations of human rights are strong early warning signals of a society in trouble, and heading for even more trouble in my opinion.”
Underscoring that rights violations should be seen as the signal for deeper action, more than they have been in the past, Mr. Eliasson said: “We have waited far too long, waited often for mass atrocities to occur, instead of acting at the early stages. So we have a huge chance now of really putting ‘human rights up front’ – which is the name of the initiative the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and I launched last year – and by that of course raising the level of awareness of human rights, but also using human rights violations as early warning signals of crises to come.”
The second important occasion that would be marked tomorrow on 10 December would be namely the beginning of the Decade of People of African Descent. “This decade will be an opportunity to shine a light upon the inequality experienced by Africans and the African diaspora in the world and to raise awareness of the historic burden of slavery and colonialism.”
Mr. Eliasson said that people of African descent are some of the poorest and most marginalized groups around the world. They often have limited access to quality education, health services, decent housing and social security.
They may experience discrimination in access to justice and they face alarmingly high rates of incarceration. "I need not remind anyone in this room of the anguished, but vitally important, public debate we are witnessing these days, in this country, on violent police action and racial profiling," he said.
“And it is evident to all of us, including us from the outside, that this is a deeply painful and a deeply troubling time for communities,” he said, recalling that following recent violent and tragic events, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had stressed that US authorities should do everything possible to respond to the demands for greater accountability.
“He has called for peaceful demonstrations and for authorities to respect such non-violent expressions of opinion. The civil rights movement in this country is a striking reminder of the power of peaceful protest,” added Mr. Eliasson, referring to Mr. Ban’s statements in the wake of recent demonstrations across the US after two grand juries – one in New York and one in Missouri – declined to indict two police officers in the deaths of two unarmed African American men.
“In a wider sense, these tragedies expose the need to do more everywhere around the world to ensure fairness in justice and law enforcement and to promote and uphold human rights for all,” he said, emphasizing that the UN will use the Decade of People of African Descent to focus on initiatives that promote greater awareness of the human rights of people of African descent, in particular equal access to justice.
Later, in an interview with UN Radio, Mr. Eliasson said “it is obvious to many, many Americans that there are problems to be dealt with and I hope, that like in any democratic society, there will be a public discussion on these issues.
“I suppose that also for, many it is painful to go through this but I think it is important that we deal with these issues and face up to them but also do it in the spirit of dialogue…of respecting the right of peaceful assembly. And here, the Civil Rights movement in the US has a great tradition.” he said.