Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Tuesday, 9 December 2008
World marks UN Human Rights Day

By Mary Robinson
Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

On this International Human Rights Day, which marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, two women are on my mind.

One is a leader of the past who still inspires because of what she helped achieve so many years ago.

The other is a leader in her community today, who struggles against the odds for a more just society in the midst of ongoing crisis.

Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt remained a tireless campaigner throughout her life

The first woman is Eleanor Roosevelt. Her leadership in 1948 as the chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights was critical in bringing the nations of the world together to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the single most important global statement of the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people.

Eleanor famously said that human rights would mean nothing unless they matter "in small places, close to home."

The Universal Declaration has inspired millions fighting for freedom and justice over the past six decades and continues to be a beacon of hope for people around the world.

The other woman on my mind is Jestina Mukoko. Jestina is director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a civil society organisation, working at the grassroots and community level on peace building. She is a contemporary human rights defender, trying to make Eleanor Roosevelt's dream of human rights a reality in her nation.

The struggle continues

Jestina was abducted from her home in the early hours of Wednesday, 3 December, 2008 by a gang of plainclothes men armed with guns. They took her from her home in the outskirts of Harare in an unmarked car.

She has not been seen since. Friends, family and colleagues are still trying to ascertain her whereabouts.

Jestina was working for a more democratic government in Zimbabwe which would ensure respect for human rights for all its people.

Her story and so many others like it remind us that the struggle for human rights continues.

Jestina Mukoko
Jestina Mukoko has not been seen since being abducted (photo courtesy of Tonderai X)

Over the past year, The Elders - a group inspired by the example of Nelson Mandela - have sought to reintroduce the Universal Declaration to millions of people around the world through the Every Human Has Rights campaign.

We wanted new generations to know that 60 years ago, nations were able to look beyond their moment - which was fearful and uncertain, much like ours - and shape a vision of a more just and equitable future for all.

We wanted to reinforce principles that are central to the Declaration, but too often forgotten in our day, that "every individual and every organ of society" has responsibilities for human rights as the Declaration puts it, and that we all have duties to our communities.

You can get involved and make your commitment to upholding the Universal Declaration at

There is still so much to do.

    • For women around the world, domestic violence and discrimination in employment are a daily reality;

    • Minorities still suffer stigma, discrimination and violence in developed and developing countries;

    • The right to information is denied to millions through censorship and media intimidation;

    • At least one billion very poor people, 20% of humanity, are daily denied basic rights to adequate food and clean water.

While such violations of rights persist, we cannot claim to be making adequate progress towards fulfilling the ambitions set down in the Universal Declaration 60 years ago.

The best tribute we could make to Eleanor Roosevelt, and to human rights defenders of our day like Jestina Mukoko, is to summon the leadership, resources, and commitment needed to ensure that the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration are not only recognized universally, but implemented as well.

A Dream Of Eleanor was broadcast on Friday 5 December at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. You can also listen to it for seven days after that on the BBC iPlayer.

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