Do we still have to care about human rights now that Human Rights Day is over?

Lina AbiRafeh
8 min readDec 12, 2023
Photo taken by the author at one of the many, many protests

Happy International Human Rights Day! (It was December 10 — we missed it because there’s nothing “human” about human rights anymore, it seems).

Meanwhile, I’m choking on my own sarcasm. The irony of “Human Rights Day” is killing us. Yes, it’s literally actually physically killing us.

What did I expect, after decades in service of an ideal we’ve never been able to attain. Maybe I’ve been naive?

And now living in a country that is the world’s loudest human rights finger-pointer (growing fat on stolen land). Maybe I should have managed my expectations?

After all, I’ve seen this charade play out before. In so many countries, I’ve heard the US raise the alarm for human rights, with all its self-righteousness, and fail to make any meaningful change. Just the opposite, they’ve arguably done damage. There are probably too many examples to count.

Afghanistan, for instance. I should know, I wrote two whole books about how concern for women’s rights fell short. And look at where Afghanistan is today. Not that the US bears all the responsibility, but it certainly has a responsibility to deliver on its commitments. It didn’t.

Why did I expect Palestine to be different? There’s never been any respect for Arab life — why did I think we’d start now?

The point is this: right now the US is actually impeding human rights. And on this of all days, whatever claims the US makes to respect human rights ring false for me.

What is International Human Rights Day anyway? In brief, it is another one of those international days I love so much (more sarcasm), this one commemorates the United Nations General Assembly’s 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, establishing fundamental rights for all individuals — yes ALL of us. “Celebrating,” while the world has zero respect for Palestinian life, much less their human rights.

Today we can put this agenda to the test. We failed.

Human rights day marks the end of what we call the 16 Days of Activism to Eliminate Violence Against Women. For each of those days, I’ve observed, celebrated, and taken part in activism. And it’s certainly not over. And for each of those days, I’ve been shocked at the irony. We’re living in a dystopian nightmare where rhetoric and reality are wildly disconnected.

Let’s start with the UN Secretary General’s call (yet again) for a ceasefire. Who vetoed? That’s right — the US. On the eve of the 75th Anniversary of the Genocide Convention, the US once again abused its veto power, demonstrating its total complicity in the genocide in Palestine. Thirteen Security Council members voted in favor of a brief draft resolution, put forward by the United Arab Emirates. The resolution was driven by the Secretary-General’s use of Article 99 of the UN Charter, designed to bring attention to the stuff that “may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

In a move that is both optimistic and naive, the UN continues to conduct voting sessions knowing full well that the US will exercise veto power in favor of Israel. It’s so painfully predictable — the meeting that could have been an email.

Voting NO to a ceasefire means voting YES to a few other things — like the continued killing of Palestinians. It seems only America thinks this is ok. Oh, and Israel, of course. This is a GENOCIDE. One where “never again” rings painfully hollow.

And then the next day, US President Biden (for whom I shamefully voted) allocated even more weapons for Israel — to ensure the total extermination of Palestinians, it would seem. And it would also seem that our annual donation towards Israeli murder machinery (shamefully supported by my tax dollars) isn’t sufficient? The United States is the biggest backer of the Israeli military, supplying billions of dollars annually to fuel its machines of death and destruction. And after 7 October, President Biden added a bonus to the tune of $14.3 billion — as an emergency present.

Bypassing Congress, the Biden administration approved an emergency sale to Israel of nearly 14,000 tank ammunition rounds valued at over $106 million, amid escalated military operations in the southern Gaza Strip. The purchase deftly sidestepped the usual congressional review for foreign military sales — a rare move for expedited weapon delivery.

According to Josh Paul, a former director in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, “the rules restricting arms transfers are loose, leaving space for policymakers, in a “willful” manner, “to simply not decide” whether the Israeli military has violated human rights in Gaza.”

Please talk to me about “human rights” in the US again. I am ashamed to be an American.

And meanwhile, we brace ourselves for an election year approaching. One where we get to choose between an old white misogynist or an old white war criminal. Is this a choice?

And on 9 December, we commemorated the Genocide Convention — a global commitment made way back when the UN was founded. As a reminder, the Convention defines genocide as committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. And what’s happening has been called a genocide by experts worldwide.

Does anyone see the irony?! I cannot believe the language we use — and the nerve we have — to celebrate our own failures.

To “commemorate” this day, I signed the petition calling for UN Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide Alice Wairimu Nderitu to resign. Why?

Her mandate is to raise awareness about potential causes of genocide, sound the alarm, advocate for action — none of which she’s actually doing. Sure, she “condemned Hamas,” but hasn’t condemned the overwhelming, disproportionate, insane violence against Palestinians. Hmmm.

The irony is killing us. Literally.

Meanwhile, December 12 marks the end of the 13-day UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) held in Dubai this year. While the focus was on curbing fossil fuels and carbon emissions, some leaders took to the podium to criticize Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, breaking an unspoken agreement to avoid political discussions at UN climate summits. Paradoxical, given the inherently political nature of the issue.

Some argue that COP28 should stick to “climate issues” — and yet, Palestine is also a climate issue. Settler colonialism is a climate issue. Theft of land, water, resources, and access are all “climate issues.” When indigenous people have their own lands confiscated and their populations exploited, that’s a climate issue too.

Climate justice advocacy demands transformative changes in social structures, addressing issues of social equality, distributive justice, and control of natural resources. Like Palestine. Yet, Western nations’ calls for “climate justice” — or any justice — doesn’t include Palestine.

Activists were unable to raise the Palestinian flag due to a ban on flags at the summit, so instead raised banners adorned with watermelons, chanting for a ceasefire and climate decolonization, emphasizing that there is no climate justice without human rights. And no human rights without rights for Palestinians.

Yes, it is a climate issue, a feminist issue, a human rights issue. And a matter of life and death. People are dying NOW. Why aren’t we making those connections?

And, women.

UN Women reports that as of 5 December approximately 838,100 Palestinian women and girls have been displaced, nearly 12,000 women and children have been murdered, and 2,610 women have become heads of households due to the loss of their male partners. Essential services are disrupted or destroyed. Risks of gender-based violence are amplified. Food insecurity is a reality. Any existing shelters are overcrowded and lack basic support for women and girls, increasing protection risks. This has been elaborated in UN Women’s Rapid Assessment and many statements from international organizations.

Supporting women is crucial. Non-negotiable. I mean… women’s rights are “human rights,” RIGHT? Looking at you, Hillary Clinton.

Violence against women knows no borders. Decades of experience shows that there is always an escalation of all forms of violence against women — especially sexual violence — during conflict, insecurity, and occupation.

In fact, women and girls everywhere are constantly targeted and harmed in conflict and warfare, including attacks by Hamas. Just as Boko Haram targeted, raped and kidnapped girls. Just as armed groups in Sudan targeted, kidnapped, enslaved and sexually assaulted women and girls. We know this to be true, that women and girls’ bodies are used and weaponized in these contexts. And women’s bodies are weaponized afterwards, for political purposes.

We should not question the accounts, but we should question who instrumentalizes the information for their own gains. If there’s one thing I know to be true about the world, it is that we care little about women’s bodies until they serve a political purpose. Yes — everywhere.

And to make it more complicated, sexual violence is under-reported everywhere. We have no idea how bad it actually is. I know this to be true because I spent two decades working in sexual violence in emergency settings.

So for a second let me sound the alarm about the forms of sexual violence we’re not talking about — Palestinian women.

The reality of living under occupation has a grave impact on Palestinian women’s safety and bodily autonomy and integrity. Sexual violence against Palestinian women by Israeli security forces is most common at checkpoints and during house raids. This includes all forms of sexual violence as well as public strip searches. Palestinian women also experience sexual violence while visiting their relatives in Israeli jails, when attending court hearings of their relatives, and during interrogations — by both male and female interrogators.

We aren’t hearing enough about the experiences of Palestinian women. And this current crisis has had disastrous impacts on their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Whether it’s through unsafe abortions, using period-delaying pills, or unmarried women and girls seeking contraception discreetly, these are last-resort acts of desperation to survive. We have left them with no choice. I just wrote about that, too.

What about… What about… What about…

Yup. But right now I’m choosing to shine a light on the things we are NOT talking about. You’re welcome to shine your light on whatever is important to you.

We really shouldn’t have to point to the bodies of dead children, to men stripped, blindfolded and beaten by soldiers, to mothers having C-sections without anesthesia, to journalists and doctors and artists being killed off one by one, and say over and over again “look… they are innocent… this is WRONG.”

If people still cannot see it, their hearts are beyond repair.

My heart is shattered in a bazillion pieces but I will still stand with the voices who stand up for peace, who stand against all the -isms (yes and Zionism), who continue to call for human rights to be respected, who courageously march and fight, who still believe a better world is possible — despite evidence to the contrary.

So let’s end this piece with a reminder that human rights are for all of us — every single one of us without exception. This means that we’re all “born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Free and equal. Dignity and rights. ALL OF US. Without exception.

Now why is that so difficult to understand?!

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!