10 December 2016
This year’s Human Rights Day arrives at the end of a year in which many people’s rights around the globe have come under increased threat. The votes for Brexit and Donald Trump have emboldened racists, leading to spikes in hate crime; the refugee crisis has continued, leaving millions of people without homes and under fire from toxic media narratives; and far-right populism and the rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ (essentially fascism under another name) make many of us fearful about the future. And that’s only the events that have dominated the headlines.
I don’t want to indulge in yet another round of ‘look how awful 2016 has been’. We know how that story goes. Instead, it feels more productive to use Human Rights Day and the approaching end of the year as an opportunity to look ahead – both to the challenges that we are now up against, and to how we might begin to meet those challenges.
Recently, I’ve found strength and inspiration in Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant book Hope in the Dark (which experienced huge numbers of sales and downloads right after Trump’s victory). Her understanding of hope feels pertinent at such an uncertain time. She writes: ‘Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act’.
While holding onto that hope, it’s important to acknowledge the very real dangers that many currently face. Here in the UK, alongside a sharp increase in racist attacks, uncertainty about our exit from the EU poses numerous possible threats to basic rights, while welfare cuts continue to erode the rights of many of those who are most vulnerable. As Trump prepares to take power in the US, the rights of immigrants, Muslims, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people and women and non-binary people are all under threat. While media attention has focused on recent political dramas in the US and the UK, there have been continuing human rights abuses elsewhere across the globe, in places like Syria and Yemen. Human rights are also going to be put more and more at risk by climate chaos as our planet continues to warm. The list goes on.
It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of huge and sometimes incomprehensible political forces, often operating many miles away from us. But something I’ve felt increasingly conscious of this year is the responsibility to take small actions closer to home. We stand up for human rights when we speak out against racist speech or actions on our streets; when we challenge media narratives that seek to dehumanise groups such as refugees or those with disabilities; when we listen to and amplify voices that are more often ignored or silenced.
So it feels apt to close with a few pointers towards practical ways to take a stand for human rights. The ‘stand up for someone’s rights’campaign has plenty of ideas for simple actions that we can all take, from lobbying and volunteering to challenging everyday prejudices. You might also check out helpful online guides about what to do if you see an immigration raid or a hate crime. If you’re able to, you can donate to organisations that continue to fight for the rights of those most threatened by Trump’s victory, or to the work of UK campaigning bodies like Hope Not Hate. Even just talking about human rights issues with those around you can begin to shift attitudes. Small actions are not the end of the fight, but they are a vital start.