Human Rights Are the Concern of Every Community
“Where after all do human rights begin? In small places, close to home…Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
The above are the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, primary architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Though the Declaration has been adopted by all 192 members of the United Nations, there has been a wide gap between what has been put down on paper and reality. Much of the discrepancy is due to failure to uphold them in “the small places” of local communities.
Looking “close to home,” in any bustling American city reveals a sad story of far too many people who have not taken the former First Lady’s warning to heart. Take, for example, human trafficking and slavery. It is estimated that tens of thousands are held in brothels as sex workers. Thousands more work against their will in the garment and other industries as well as domestic service. Metropolitan areas with high density populations of multiple ethnics and cultural diversity make it easy for slaves who are smuggled in from other parts of the world to remain hidden.
The garment industry has been a major problem area. Sweatshops, where workers toil for below legal wages for excessive hours in health-threatening working conditions, have proliferated to such an extent that Los Angeles has been called the “sweatshop capital of the United States” due to its high number of illegal clothing factories. Probably the most infamous Los Angeles-area sweatshop case occurred in 1995 when a raid on a suburban apartment complex freed 72 immigrant Thai laborers who had been working eighteen hours a day for many years behind barbed wire under the control of armed guards and sleeping ten to a room. The owners of the company sold the garments that they made to major clothing lines who apparently never asked questions as long as the clothes kept coming at the price they wanted to pay. As long as wholesalers and consumers are willing to look the other way, sweatshops both local and foreign will continue to be a problem. Sweatshops can also stay hidden by hiring illegal aliens who can easily be intimidated into staying silent and out of sight.
Hate crimes are another common human rights violation. A hate crime is an offense committed against someone which stems from hatred or prejudice against their race, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation. The FBI estimates that the number of such crimes is underreported probably by as much as twenty-five to one. The most common type of hate crimes have generally been racially-motivated, but religious discrimination, and indeed all categories, lead to vicious hate crimes.
Human rights violations such as the above and others exist almost everywhere. Many local groups seek to correct abuses. There are many international human rights organizations, some of which are ethnic groups seeking to improve conditions in their native countries. Child sex trafficking is seen as one of the most egregious activities happening under our collective noses every day in American cities. This issue has garnered dozens of efforts to stop abuse, yet sexual exploitation of 12 and 13 year olds is still used to generate six-figure incomes.
Whether you choose to join any organization, task force or governmental agency, there is much you can do to promote human rights in your own community. Even simple actions such as maintaining an unbiased attitude and encouraging others to be tolerant of others can go a long way. If you see evidence of someone being held or forced to work against their will, report it to the authorities. It is, after all, you the individual who gives human rights their strength and substance.
Nick McNaughton is the Planning and Research Director of the Los Angeles Chapter of Youth for Human Rights International, an organization whose mission is to carry forth education programs that teach youth human rights and how to defend and protect them, to forward the message of tolerance and cooperation, and the ultimate goal of universal Human Rights.
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