A Blog Post on Human Rights Day by Forest Whitaker

As 2020 draws to a close, manifestly a year of crisis, we are entering a time of vulnerability and a time for learning. COVID-19 has indeed revealed many vulnerabilities in our health systems and our socioeconomic systems. My country, the United States, has been disproportionately hit by the pandemic. As I write this, over 289,000 people have died because of the virus. More than 15.5 million have been infected and the whole country has been affected. My country suffers a dire impact, but so do many countries. Everywhere, people have lost their jobs, which means that the present is at risk. Everywhere, schools have been closed, which means that the future is at risk. We already know that inequality is on the rise because of the COVID crisis. And there have been other, less visible impacts of the crisis that are nonetheless preoccupying. Domestic violence, for instance, has surged in parallel with lockdown measures. Many people also experience various forms of trauma. In every country, political leadership is exerting considerable efforts to rebuild the present and prepare for future shocks.

Clearly, this means that we cannot be satisfied with rebuilding our countries as they were in their previous state, the very state that allowed for the crisis. We would fool ourselves if we believed that the current crisis is solely a health matter. The virus did not spread in a void – it disseminated into systems that were not prepared for its eventuality. Yet, experts had foreseen the possibility of a virus spreading across an interconnected world at dazzling speed. Reports had been transmitted to political leaders. But they were not heard because it remains nearly impossible for our societies to cope with long-term concerns and distant uncertainties. In this light, the COVID-19 crisis is, for all its urgency, of the same nature that other global crises like climate change, biodiversity losses or oceanic degradations, which are slower albeit inexorable against our inaction.

All these crises are long-term global problems for which we are ill-equipped. Our horizon is the short-term and the immediate profits we can pocket today or tomorrow. We have difficulties relating to impacts we do not see and we have difficulties connecting with our brothers and sisters on the other side of the planet or with the next generations who will come to age in a decade or two. This is to say that to think in the long run is not just an abstract calculation of causes and effects over long swathes of space or long periods of time. To think in the long term in a practical way that will have a transformative and sustained impact, we need to have a connection to humanity. Such connection is the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Every human being has inalienable rights that are not bound by time and space – and when these rights are considered in their full scope, thinking long-terms comes “naturally.”

This is the compass – a deeper understanding of human rights – that can help us out of the COVID-19 crisis – and others. This is why, this year, the United Nations has placed Human Rights Day under the call to “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights.” If people become more aware of the need for promoting the human rights to their full extent, there is reason to hope that we can build back better. In this, I have learned a lot from the events of the year. It seems that, indeed, many issues pertaining to basic human rights have come in the spotlight or closer to it. I mentioned the issues of rising inequality, of school closures, or domestic violence – all of which directly pertain to human rights. There is a growing awareness of the need to address these problems at the root level. This is something I have witnessed firsthand in my humanitarian work with the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI). In the different countries in which WPDI operates, local leaders regularly call for help to mediate conflicts or inform populations about human rights. Right after the lockdown was lifted in South Africa, WPDI South Africa was requested to address domestic violence in some of the townships in Cape Flats. It was interesting that so many people would finally treat the issue as the emergency it always was. Another case of people expressing a growing awareness of human rights as a priority are the demonstrations that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in the United States and beyond. I think also of all those places where people are fighting for freedom of expression or freedom of opinion. Those fights are rarely easy ones – this is an understatement – but they are sometimes the only way to a better world – for what could “better” mean if it did not stand for “freer”?

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