This year will mark the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document, the result of extensive negotiations between the countries that comprised the recently created United Nations, aimed to establish a series of basic agreements to guarantee freedom, equality and dignity for everyone.
Indisputably, given the historical context at the time, humanity was crying out for such a declaration. The world was finally coming to terms with the atrocities committed during the Second World War, while the impact of colonialism continued to ravage vast swaths of the planet. Meanwhile, the feminist movement continued to gather momentum for the long road ahead.
The document, which stands as the most translated in history, met the pressing needs of its time.
Fast-forward to the present day and the complex world we inhabit is facing another crossroads. Cries of desperation can be heard once again, but a major new opportunity also presents itself.
Some of the challenges are familiar – the growing authoritarianism gripping much of the world; the lack of global leadership; the climate crisis and catastrophic inaction of states and corporations; widespread inequality and attacks on human rights defenders, women and minorities, among many others. But there are also new, more complex challenges, such as the impact of the misuse of artificial intelligence; the development of software designed to spy on those who stand up to power; the lack of oversight over algorithms that promote online hate speech with real-world consequences; and the profound impact of climate change on our health and the planet, to name but a few.
These new challenges will no doubt require new approaches and global consensus. It’s vital that leaders return to the table with the same spirit that brought them together in 1948, but with the determination to implement an agenda of equality and justice that takes into account the power of large corporations and economic interests, and the need for those who defend the rights agreed upon all those years ago to have a seat at the table, as well as those whose voices have never been properly represented.
One of the most important lessons I have learned during my decades working alongside historically excluded and intentionally marginalized communities in the Americas, including Indigenous Peoples, Black communities, women and LGBTIQ+ people, and those facing the ravages of exploitation and environmental destruction, among others, is that without them, no change is possible.
The world has come a long way since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but some of the strategies used back then can still bring us closer to the answers we need to address the existential challenges we face today.
Throughout the past decade, in my role as Amnesty International’s Americas Director, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to the most critical corners of the continent, leading teams of researchers and activists, documenting grave human rights abuses, including femicides, arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, and land dispossession, among others, helping draw attention to what millions of people face, taking their stories to the courts and, in many cases, securing justice.
Over the years, we’ve supported thousands of people demanding justice, from the mothers and fathers of the disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, to the Indigenous Peoples and rural communities brutally repressed by security forces in Peru. We’ve documented cases of crimes against humanity in Venezuela, and of arbitrary detentions and the torture of people exercising their right to protest in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, the United States and Colombia, among other countries. We’ve also accompanied the victims of brutal repression in Nicaragua and Cuba, and thousands of refugees who are part of the largest wave of forced migration in the continent’s history.
The situation in the Americas, the most violent and unequal region on the planet, is tragic. The illegal use of force by states to silence those calling them to account, militarization of marginalized areas in failed attempts to provide security, censorship of journalists and human rights defenders, gender-based violence, racism and an unprecedented refugee crisis are compounded by the inability or unwillingness of authorities to take action, bring those responsible to justice, and protect the victims of abuses.
But the story does not end there.
It is also here, in the Americas, that social movements have confronted a history of violence with tremendous resilience and peaceful resistance, achieving extremely important milestones for the good of humanity. Latin America is the place where diverse feminist movements are today breaking down all conceivable barriers and making the right to abortion a growing reality; where, if it were not for the work of human rights defenders and victims’ relatives, justice would not exist in any case of state violence; the place where, thanks to decades of tireless struggle, racism and its impacts are finally being discussed. It is here, in the home of the Amazon rainforest, the most biodiverse area on the planet, that historically oppressed Indigenous Peoples have succeeded in drawing attention to issues they have been speaking up about for decades.
The world has come a long way since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but some of the strategies used back then can still bring us closer to the answers we need to address the existential challenges we face today, including the global leadership crisis.
Just like in 1948, our collective future depends on it.