“Freedom from” vs. “Access to”

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Acknowledging Human Rights Day is a milestone in and of itself. It’s a chance to start conversations about social justice and equality, renew commitments to justice and dignity for all, and celebrate activists and social movements globally.

Yet there is still a struggle to find rights-based language in common vernacular. The concept of human rights can be inaccessible, or abstract. It’s hard to make it local, and it can be even harder to translate it into the lived experiences of individuals.

My first-hand experience with translating the concept of human rights comes from explaining my experience in grad school. “You did a Master’s in…huh?” And mostly it comes down to “What sort of job does this qualify you for, then?” (My distinguished co-Editor Maureen knows all about it.)

Human rights are often associated with pervasive and egregious abuses of power, like torture, war crimes, and genocide. And rightfully so. Those vast human rights atrocities are unconscionable, and should be on our daily radars. However, part of what makes human rights abstract to people who aren’t living through torture, genocide, etc. is that they seem “out there” or “over there” or happening to “other people” and there’s not a damn thing you can do. And rather than being about apathy, I think it’s more about disconnectedness.

But little do people often know that human rights extend beyond these stark and grave examples of abuse. In addition to the important accountability work of organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which hold governments accountable and shed light on human rights violations by mobilizing international human rights legal frameworks, human rights extend to not just protection from rights abuses but access to your unalienable rights. And I think this is where the breakdown happens.

In the sort of human rights work I do, I like to think about two “types” of rights: positive rights (or access to) and negative rights (or freedom from). It’s the more “basic,” day-to-day rights that I care most about, of the social and economic variety. And these rights very often come down to access, and can be found in the second half the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is where you’ll find your access to “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,” the hinge around which I think other rights are organized.

I’m in Cape Town right now for the 17th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa. This goes to say that my brain is teeming with the latest research, messaging, and advocacy strategies to ensure that the HIV response is, well, responsive to the people most affected. HIV remains one of the biggest health and human rights issues today, as it is so closely linked with several rights. Those who are most marginalized – or, key affected populations – experience layers upon layers of rights violations that affect their ability to live healthy, productive lives.

If governments don’t facilitate access to these rights, they don’t exist. If your ability to enjoy a healthy life is at odds with a weak health system or a society that discriminates against you, you don’t have access to your human rights. These are the basic rights I refer to, and this is work we CAN do each day. This is the work of organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, allowing us to connect to our local, “basic” rights. And we owe it to them to support their work, today on Human Rights Day and everyday.

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Categories: Health

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