You don’t know me but I’m your brother…

9 December 2016

Statement to mark Human Rights Day by Yoriko Yasukawa, UNFPA’s Director for Asia and the Pacific.

This is a line from ‘Taking it to the Streets,’ a Doobie Brothers song from the 1970s that many people of my generation will know and love as I do.  I have quoted it many times over my long career in the United Nations system, to explain what it means to work for development processes that build inclusive societies based on solidarity and respect for the rights of all people.

These lyrics paraphrase in clear and simple terms the principles embodied in Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we celebrate today:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Both the song and the Universal Declaration tell us that this brotherhood that unites humanity should not depend on our knowing or liking one another, but on ‘reason and conscience,’ and that it is a function purely of our being human, regardless of our nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, age or any other differences we might have.

The theme of this year’s International Human Rights Day is precisely about that – ‘Stand up for someone else’s rights.’ It’s about demonstrating that brotherhood and sisterhood in real life – not just for our families or friends, but also for those brothers and sisters whom we may not know. That requires empathy, an act of imagination and, yes, brotherhood and sisterhood that puts us in the shoes of another person, no matter how different and far away he or she is from us.

Over the many years I have worked in the United Nations, particularly in efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts, I have found that it is one of the most difficult things for human beings to do, and at the same time the most rewarding.  To borrow the words of a bright high school student I met in Costa Rica some years ago, it’s what allows human beings to go from just being an ‘I’ to create the ‘we’ that we need to make life worth living. The challenge is to exercise empathy to expand that ‘we’ beyond the group of people that we know and love.

So, on behalf of the UNFPA Asia Pacific Regional Office, I would call on all of us in this vast and diverse region to take on that empathy challenge today to expand that circle of the ‘we’, standing up for the rights of those whom we may not know, those who are different from us, those whose beliefs we disagree with.

Let us make a special effort to put ourselves in the place of those who are the most vulnerable, the most excluded and marginalized, those who are discriminated against just because of who they are – the indigenous peoples, the ethnic and religious minorities, the undocumented migrants and refugees, the disabled, the lower caste people, LGBT people, the sex workers, the child brides, the people living with HIV, the poorest of the poor.  As an organization that gives a special priority to girls and women, we would make a special plea to all of us to stand up for their right to live free of violence, abuse and exploitation – including in their own homes and at the hands of those who are supposed to love them.  We may not know them but they are our sisters. 

About Human Rights Day

Human Rights Day is observed every year on 10 December. It commemorates the day on which, in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1950, the Assembly passed resolution 423 (V), inviting all States and interested organizations to observe 10 December of each year as Human Rights Day.

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