Sixty years ago on December 10, the UN adopted a promise to guarantee the dignity of each individual. Today, women are at the forefront of the continuing struggle for human rights. The author, an international leader of this campaign, encourages us to make a personal commitment to its goals.This week the world marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration affirms the inherent dignity and equal rights of each and every person. It calls for human rights to be respected by all nations, individuals and organs of society. It was drafted by a remarkable group of individuals and led by a particularly remarkable woman—Eleanor Roosevelt. I have just returned from Paris, where the declaration was adopted by the United Nations, and where individuals and organizations from every region came to commemorate it and to bring its message to new generations.
As we begin the seventh decade of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I hope more effort will be dedicated to marshalling the force of women’s leadership in the ongoing work to protect human rights. When women put their minds to achieving something collectively, we get it done.
Reflecting on my seven years as president of Ireland, and then the honor of serving for five years as UN high commissioner for human rights, giving leadership on human rights brought me to the places of deepest conflict. From Sierra Leone to East Timor to Chechnya, from the Democratic of Congo to Colombia, I was privileged to meet with groups on the ground. I learned about the feminization of poverty, the suffering from gender-based violence and the issues that should get much higher priority but don’t, such as maternal mortality.
One area where women have taken initiative is in peace building. A growing number of women leaders are putting their efforts behind implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which recognises the importance of women’s participation in preventing conflict, building peace and working for human rights. This single resolution, adopted in 2000 by the UN’s most important body, highlights the impact of conflict on women and the need to protect women from all forms of violence, especially gender based violence. And it advocates that women are included as indispensable actors in finding solutions. The groundbreaking nature of Resolution 1325 and its call for women to play a greater role at all decision making levels in the prevention, management and resolution of conflict and in peace processes should receive the attention it deserves.
In 2008, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1820, which noted that rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide. The council demanded the “immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians,” expressing its deep concern that, despite repeated condemnation, violence and sexual abuse of women and children trapped in war zones was not only continuing, but, in some cases, had become so widespread and systematic as to “reach appalling levels of brutality.”
Resolution 1820 makes several key requests of the secretary-general, including that he report on conflict situations in which sexual violence was widely or systematically employed against civilians; and proposals aimed at minimizing the susceptibility of women and girls to such violence. It also requested him to develop effective guidelines and strategies to enhance the ability of relevant United Nations peacekeeping operations to protect civilians, including women and girls, from all forms of sexual violence.
Resolution 1325 and 1820 make the link between gender-based violence, human rights violations and international peace and security. Human rights and human dignity are at the centre of these resolutions. To ensure implementation, women, as rights holders, must be empowered and enabled to participate. Accountability measures should be adopted to ensure that such participation is meaningful. Denying women the opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their lives, denying women protection from acts of violence, denying women justice and dignity—these are violations of human rights that are all too common and must be tackled today.Backing Local Peace Initiatives by Women
In many conflict areas, gender based violence and the abuse of women’s rights are endemic. And the suffering of victims of gender based violence in particular goes well beyond their immediate trauma. Survivors’ rights are further abused in the aftermath of rape and other violence due to inadequate medical and psychosocial care; entrenched impunity for perpetrators of gender based violence, incapacitated judicial systems, and often abandonment by husbands, families or communities.
Investing in women and their grassroots initiatives is perhaps the most cost-effective form of conflict prevention. Resolutions 1325 and 1820 are valuable tools for supporting local women’s peace initiatives and enhancing their capacity to influence peace-building processes. We must do more to support women’s local organisations in conflict resolution and prevention.
Resolution 1325 not only draws attention to the particular impact of conflict on women, it also recognises “the consequent impact this has on durable peace and reconciliation.” And perhaps, most importantly, it recognises women as indispensable actors in finding sustainable solutions. The implementation of this resolution is vital for the realisation of human rights for men and women throughout the world. The equal status of women in society is fundamental to the achievement of the promise of human rights for all.A Personal Investment in Human Rights
Our task is to renew our commitment to the values we embrace in talking about women’s rights as human rights. That was the great call at the 1995 UN women’s conference in Beijing. And that is the call of a group who came together at the invitation of Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel known as The Elders. We decided to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as our constitution, and we have decided that promoting greater respect for women’s rights will be one of our commitments in the coming year.
In honor of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, The Elders have been working throughout 2008 with a range of partner organizations—including the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, SEWA, UNICEF, Amnesty International, and CIVICUS—on the Every Human Has Rights Campaign. Visit www.everyhumanhasrights.org and discover the Universal Declaration for yourself. Then make your own personal commitment to human rights. Our world needs shared values and common goals more than ever. The Universal Declaration is the right place to start.
Mary Robinson is the president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative. She served as United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002 and as president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997. She is a member of the Elders. She is chair of the Council of Women World Leaders and vice president of the Club of Madrid. She chairs the Fund for Global Human Rights and is honorary president of Oxfam International and is patron of the International Community of Women Living with AIDS (ICW). She is chair of the GAVI Fund Executive Committee and vice-chair of the GAVI Fund Board. She is a professor of practice at Columbia University and member of the Advisory Board of the Earth Institute and extraordinary professor at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. She serves as chancellor of Dublin University.
Written for The Women's Media Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-partisan organization making women visible and powerful in the media, founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan.