by Kirk Henley, Public Services Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
“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.”
—Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article I
I think most of us would agree that everyone in the world should be able to live a happy and prosperous life. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, and many people suffer from hunger, disease, violence and oppression on a daily basis. These are problems with no easy solutions, and it will take a concerted global effort to fix them. Luckily, there are also many people who work tirelessly to secure the rights of others and provide basic needs to those without. If you are one of those who would like to help, here are a few works to give you hope and courage and show you the way.
Perhaps the most important work on the subject of human rights in the past few years is the excellent “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Using true stories to illustrate the major issues facing women in developing countries, the authors lay out a plan for bringing better education and healthcare to the world’s female population. Their conclusion is that helping women, just over half the population of the world, meet their full potential is a key ingredient in the fight against cyclical poverty around the globe. The book was also turned into a documentary which aired on PBS.
One of the major individual success stories in the realm of women's rights is that of Fawzia Koofi of Afghanistan. In her memoir, “The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan Into the Future” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), she relates how she went from being left out in the sun to die as a newborn to becoming her country's first female Speaker of Parliament, where she has been a staunch advocate of women's and children's rights. Despite death threats and assassination attempts, she has persevered and plans to run for president of Afghanistan in 2014.
There are quite a few inspiring stories of people who give up their affluent lives to help the less fortunate. Two examples are “A Thousand Sisters: My Journey Into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman” (Seal Press, 2010) by Lisa Shannon and “Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal” (William Morrow & Co., 2010) by Conor Grennan. In “A Thousand Sisters” Shannon, who started an international organization that sponsors women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, shares her account of visiting the war-torn nation and meeting the women she has helped. In “Little Princes” Grennan relates how three months of volunteering in a Nepalese orphanage turned into a career of advocacy and humanitarianism after he discovered that many of the children he helped were rescued from human traffickers.
The modern human rights movement has its origins in the years after World War II when an effort was made to bring those responsible for the atrocities in Europe and Asia to justice. This tradition of holding war criminals responsible in an international court was taken up again in the 1990s. “All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals” (Princeton University Press, 2012) by David Scheffer relates the author’s role in setting up criminal tribunals for the Balkans, Rwanda, Cambodia and Sierra Leone. While the tone is sometimes bitter at the international community's failures in working together, this is an excellent insider's account of world politics and the problems with addressing human rights abuses.
The campaign to end the violence in Darfur, a region of Sudan, was one of the longest sustained international human rights movements in recent memory. In “Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), Rebecca Hamilton gives an overview of this movement and assesses its successes and failures in raising awareness and halting the violence. She describes the action of major players, from college students to celebrities to international leaders, and raises questions about how this model can be used in the future.
While most of us will not start our own human rights organization or travel to a foreign country to provide humanitarian aid, we can still help make the world a better place through donations. However, blindly throwing money at a problem is rarely a solution. In “Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World” (Hyperion, 2009), Wendy Smith provides advice on how to find charities that produce results. Her most important message, though, is that a small amount in the right place can go a long way.