Claiming Our Rights
The case for putting international policy into local practice by making Westchester a "Human Rights County."
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By Robert Kesten
I come to write this piece after having conceptualized the idea for the United Nations Decade of Human Rights Education. The Decade ran globally from 1995 to 2004. In that time, we learned how little was known about human rights by the very humans it was intended for. We learned that without that knowledge no one’s rights were protected. Every newscast from around the world reminds us of that every day. For our efforts, our organization’s founding president, Shulamith Koenig, was awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize. At 91 years old, Ms. Koenig died this past summer leaving a legacy not yet fulfilled. So, while participating in a Westchester County-funded program during COVID, my eyes were opened to a way I could give back to my community and continue a legacy that started with Eleanor Roosevelt and Shulamith Koenig and will be passed on to future generations through our efforts here in the County.
Westchester is a unique bridge between New York City’s forces of change, the historic communities comprising the rest of the state, and our nation at large. So many popular places to live in our country are populated by former New Yorkers. We bring with us a creative and competitive energy, diversity in all its forms, and an innate curiosity that has pushed the rest of the nation to greatness.
It is why a group has come together to form the country’s first Human Rights County, a geographic area building a nongovernmental Assembly of both for- and not-for-profit organizations that best represent the needs, wants, and dreams of our region’s citizens. These organizations are as diverse as the people they serve, sometimes in conflict with one another, but willing to listen and work within the Human Rights Framework based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
The UDHR, like the United Nations itself, was a global response to the ravages of World War II and the abject horrors of the Holocaust. The U.N.’s Human Rights Committee, which drafted the UDHR, was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, a New Yorker and our nation’s first U.N. Representative. The Declaration, comprising 30 articles, recognized that peace on a global, as well as local, scale, can only be achieved when human dignity for every woman, man, and child is realized. This document, adopted universally on December 10, 1948 — now International Human Rights Day — was the first to recognize women as fully equal with men, way ahead of its time.
The UDHR, like the U.S. Declaration of Independence, declares that every human being is born with certain inalienable human rights not given by government but by a higher power. These rights are to be protected and defended by government, and the people are tasked with holding their governments accountable. To do this, people must know and claim their Human “inalienable” Rights every day and make them part and parcel of their DNA.
One key reason for establishing a Human Rights County is to ensure that every resident will know and claim these rights as their own. Today, the UDHR and its message is one of the best-kept secrets, with so few people knowing of its existence and even fewer knowing its content and power. The power of the Declaration is that it puts people first and maintains human dignity as the prime responsibility of government, law, and society.
With the public largely ignorant of this fact, governments at every level continue to demand we sacrifice our inalienable rights for a false sense of security. Once human rights are surrendered, they are hard to regain as government will always try to make governing easier. We must remember that governing in a democracy was never intended to be easy, but difficult and often messy with myriad aspirations held by a wildly diverse population. This glue, a shared humanity, is only possible when our social and economic structures are built on the solid foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That foundation and framework give us common definitions of words so we can speak to each other and not at each other. It reminds us of our equality, without confusing it with “sameness.” We are and can be different without ever relinquishing our equality in society or under the law.
So how is a Human Rights County born? It is when people and the organizations (for- and not-for-profit) they have self-selected to meet their needs, come together and form an Assembly to learn, claim, and share the UDHR. They go through a series of lifelong learning exercises, discussions, rule and organizational procedures, community mapping, and reviews of governmental budgets that impact their communities. Assemblies are democratic and inclusive, setting their own rules of operation. All are welcome. Organizations are represented by decision-makers, who will hold their organizations responsible for decisions made. Assemblies are open to the public and answer to the needs of the people. Elected and appointed government officials are invited to participate and join the Assembly when it is prepared and organized, understanding its special role in the county.
The Assembly is not focused on the law; human rights is not about the law. It is about holding government and law accountable to the people they serve and keeping the public aware of their responsibilities to the community (Article 29 of the UDHR). The Assembly must institute a variety of ways to encourage people to know their Human Rights, to participate in the community, and to see the bigger picture while focusing on the common good.
With the County’s proximity to the world’s media capital, and its access to some of the greatest communicators of our age, Westchester could become the iconic shining city on the hill, a beacon to the nation and the world, putting human beings first and raising the bar on all of us being created equal.
This is not a full- or part-time job, it is a change in the way of life and as individuals and communities adapt, it becomes easier and more seamless. It makes living in a complex world possible, even with people you vehemently disagree with.
As Westchester, the nation, and the world have become more divided, as people have become more tribal, and as we have shed the very notion that we are more alike than we care to admit, it might just be time to discover a document born out of humanity’s worst moments and then successfully hidden for nearly 75 years. With the County’s proximity to the world’s media capital, and its access to some of the greatest communicators of our age, Westchester could become the iconic shining city on the hill, a beacon to the nation and the world, putting human beings first and raising the bar on all of us being created equal.
Asked another way, with rising seas, harsher storms, threats to our democracy, a world in constant transformation, pandemics, challenges to our freedoms and inalienable rights, a universal feeling of insecurity, and doubts about our institutions, is there another choice but to choose human rights? With dignity as the pathway to a future discussed long ago as one without fear or want, we can imagine our corner of the world, with just under one million souls committing themselves to themselves, their children and grandchildren, and generations yet to come. Imagine.
In the best democracies, citizens are given the information they need to make the best possible decisions. I hope the information here, the history, why Westchester and why now makes ample sense. You hold the power to ask those organizations and institutions that best represent you to become founding members of the Assembly. You now know about the UDHR and your human “inalienable” rights and your responsibility to reclaim them. Each of us holds the future in the palm of our hand. How will you use yours?
As we do in our work, I extend my hand in partnership. I offer you the intersection between inspiration and where it meets aspiration. The place where the future is made by standing on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us. Following is the short version of the Declaration. As we begin our countdown to the December 10th anniversaries of the 74th and 75th annual International Human Rights Days, which side of history will you be on?
For more information, or to participate in the 75th Anniversary Celebrations of the Declaration, or the Human Rights County, visit www.humanrightscounty.com
United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights — Unofficial Summary
All human beings are born free and equal.
Everyone is entitled to the same rights without discrimination of any kind.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.
No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel or degrading treatment or punishment.
Everyone has the right to be recognized everywhere as a person before the law.
Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection of the law.
Everyone has the right to justice.
No one shall be arrested, detained, or exiled arbitrarily.
Everyone has the right to a fair trial.
Everyone has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Everyone has the right to privacy.
Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and to leave and return to one's country.
Everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution.
Everyone has the right to a nationality.
All adults have the right to marry and found a family. Women and men have equal rights to marry, within marriage, and at its dissolution.
Everyone has the right to own property.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Everyone has the right to peaceful assembly and association.
Everyone has the right to take part in government of one's country.
Everyone has the right to social security and to the realization of the economic, social, and cultural rights indispensable for dignity.
Everyone has the right to work, to just conditions of work, to protection against unemployment, to equal pay for equal work, to sufficient pay to ensure a dignified existence for one's self and one's family, and the right to join a trade union.
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure.
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services.
Everyone has the right to education.
Everyone has the right to participate freely in the cultural life of the community.
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which these rights can be realized fully.
Everyone has duties to the community.
No person, group, or government has the right to destroy any of these rights.
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