Wednesday, March 4, 2015
A friend, who is in Lithuania to teach an international litigation course, recently shared photos of his visit to the Ninth Fort in Kaunas. The Ninth Fort was the site of Nazi executions of Jews and others. His photos reminded me of my visit to the Ninth Fort in 2004, when I was a visiting professor at Vytautus Magnus University School of Law. I taught a course on human rights law, and more than 100 students were enrolled. In addition to being professionally enriching, it was a profound experience personally: There I was teaching human rights and listening to students talk openly about their human rights concerns in the very place where just two generations earlier many of my relatives had perished during one of the worst human rights atrocities in history -- the Holocaust.
The students interest in and engagement with human rights was a reminder that there is progress. Often, as human rights advocates, we focus on all of the trouble spots. That’s both understandable and important to do. There are too many places where human rights violations persist and they demand our attention. While much work remains, it is worth reminding ourselves that in the 67 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there has been great progress. Millions of lives have been saved, previously silenced groups now are allowed to participate in their countries’ governance, and tens of millions of marginalized individuals have secured access to the basic necessities of life (health care, education, housing, etc.).
Recognizing progress is important to sustaining our effort. When we pause to reflect, we also should recognize and honor the many brave individuals (both famous and largely unknown) who sacrificed greatly to improve human rights for all, around the globe and here in the U.S.
This coming weekend (March 5-9), Selma hosts a 50th anniversary commemoration of Bloody Sunday, the Selma-to-Montgomery March, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From the courts (Shelby County v. Holder) to the curbside (Ferguson and many other locales since), we see threats to a breadth of basic human rights. Significant challenges remain and require a sustained commitment to address, but we should not allow the work-to-be-done to completely overshadow the important achievements to date and the courageous individuals responsible for the progress we now enjoy.