Activist Helen Thomas shares a birthday with the UN’s most famous declaration. Here she reflects on what it means to be born “free and equal”, and the work remains to be done in securing that reality for all.
I came into the world on a freezing winter night in 1948 in my parents’ small cottage in the north of England. My mother had laboured for hours, finally giving birth at midnight on the ninth of December.
Those were difficult, post-war years. My parents had married a week before war was declared. Reunited after years of separation, my mother struggled to raise four children in a world of bombsites, rationing and poverty. Her existence was a continuous round of domestic labour, and it must have seemed that events in the outside world had little impact on her life.
On the night of my birth, 500 miles away in Paris, another woman was labouring to bring something new into the world, also the result of many months of gestation. She, however, was a former US First Lady, a diplomat and a UN representative. Her progeny was expected to change the lives of millions, myself included. It was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Helen Thomas, an activist in the UK who shares a birthday with the UN Declaration of Human Rights
Within the first hours of my life, I was reborn “free and equal in dignity and rights”.
For months, a committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt had battled to bring forth a list of fundamental rights and freedoms that all countries in the infant UN could agree belonged to all their citizens. As I made my first angry cries, Roosevelt was giving a night-time speech before the General Assembly, and declaring the Universal Declaration “a great document”. On 10 December, it was adopted by the General Assembly and every person on the planet received recognition of their human rights. At least, on paper.
Many decades passed before I understood the monumentality of what had happened in the moments of my birth. The Universal Declaration went beyond the notions of “good and evil” that I grew up with, beyond the division of nations and cultures. Within the first hours of my life, I was reborn “free and equal in dignity and rights”. I had acquired freedom from torture and discrimination, full equality before the law, and had become entitled to free movement, thought, conscience and religion among other rights. Yet for many years I knew nothing of it.
Only now, from reading the history books, do I know that the Universal Declaration’s 30 Articles sparked new discussions, seeped into various laws and national constitutions, and formed the foundation of human rights treaties.
The war had left a bleak landscape in Britain, but also legacies of egalitarianism. One such legacy was Britain’s free and universal National Health Service (NHS), barely five months old when I was born. The history books tell me that the new framework of human rights had an immediate impact on the fledgling NHS; however, when I came to benefit from its medical services, I found it utterly lacking in respect for the dignity and rights of patients.
At the age of two, I toddled out of the garden gate, into the road and under the wheels of a lorry. In a heart-stopping instant, the course of my life was altered irrevocably.
Following the accident, I became the first in my family to receive free hospital care, which my parents could never have afforded otherwise. Thanks to the NHS, I can walk today. Yet hospital regimes could be cruel. Children were tied to cots, sometimes for weeks. Medical procedures for children were frequently carried out without pain relief in the belief that it would not benefit them. Procedures were frequently conducted without the consent of the patient or their family. In the early days, parents could only see their children for one hour each week. Such practices went against the human rights of patients, yet were common.
The rights to education and freedom from discrimination also took a long time to trickle down. When I enrolled at school, some staff refused to teach a “damaged” child. I was often separated from my classmates, and was prevented from coming into school on crutches, lest I became a “liability”.
During my childhood, discrimination against women and girls, within the family and wider society, also meant fewer places for girls in the better schools. I wasted years on an education that was outdated and irrelevant. I learned the minutiae of the French Revolution, but nothing about the founding of the UN, its relevance for humankind, or the Universal Declaration.
At 16, I began nursing, and received a salary that allowed me to save up for a passport and a suitcase. Arriving in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the late 1960s, I found a wide-open world of sunshine and opportunity. And apartheid. As a white, literate English woman, I could walk into almost any job. Utterly unqualified, I got a job as the manageress of a swanky restaurant. Under me, the lone white employee, were Xhosa kitchen workers, Asian waiters and Malay bar staff. I found the premise of apartheid absurd – a privileged few keeping a tight hold on what they had managed to grab, and using a false ideology of the inferiority of others to justify it. It would have been all too easy and rewarding to go along with it.
Yet I didn’t.
Was it the vicious nonsense of apartheid that awoke me? Coming from such ignorance of human rights, I hardly know, except to say that the injustice was so self-evidently painful, it was intolerable. Mothers could be separated from their babies; black people killed with impunity. I realized that protection of the rights I took for granted was not available to all.
When my white fiancé began furtively training non-white apprentices in his mechanic’s workshop, his white workmates harassed and punished him, even trying to set him on fire. Refusing to show proof of our “pure white descent” on our marriage certificate, we crossed the border and married in Swaziland. Returning to South Africa, we faced further harassment because most of our friends were registered as “coloured”. Refusing to play along with the white supremacy myth left us exposed in a climate of oppression, police violence and state spies. We boarded a slow boat to India to avoid arrest.
We arrived during the Maharashtra drought in Mumbai, where half of the city’s 14 million inhabitants lived and died on the streets. I was again shocked by how commonplace the extremes of poverty and disease could become. The Universal Declaration wasn’t in evidence there either.
Returning to England in the 1970s, and the advantages of free education, I gained a PhD in medical research. I fostered a refugee boy from apartheid South Africa, and had three children of my own.
Today, I volunteer for initiatives that support refugees, campaign for improvements to the local environment, and help supply a food bank. Otherwise, like most of us, my life will not leave much of an imprint on the universe.
At 70 years old, I wonder what progress the world has made towards achieving the recognition of and respect for the rights that Eleanor Roosevelt aspired to. Every person is born free and equal in dignity and rights, yet at school my children, like me, were not taught of the Universal Declaration’s existence. They did, however, learn about the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe, and its nightmarish culmination at Auschwitz and elsewhere; events that led to the Universal Declaration being adopted. My youngest daughter saw these crimes of fascism as something that “ignorant, old people” had done. Now she sees her own generation slipping into the same pattern. How can we protect our freedoms if we don’t know where they stem from?
My first grandchild is due to be born this winter. Will he remain as ignorant of his rights as my generation? Or will he be taught of their existence, and have the courage to do what my generation frequently failed to do: to secure, for himself and others, those rights and freedoms that are his birthright? Otherwise, this moment in human history when we strove towards something better will be lost to the constant, competing human inclinations towards greed, revenge, selfishness and the lust for power that continually threaten to strip us of our rights.
Human rights are too often enjoyed and controlled only by elites, and understood by the few. To sustain them, I believe they must be known and understood by the many. We must educate every child about the Universal Declaration, why it matters, and all the human rights that they possess. We must make each individual feel a shared responsibility to uphold those rights and to fight for them, every day.