12 Inspiring Human Rights Day Quotes

Human Rights Day is just around the corner, and it’s as important as ever to celebrate and promote our fundamental human rights. Human Rights Day was established on the 10th of December 1950, two years after the day that the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, the 10th of December has served as an opportunity to campaign and hold world leaders to account in defense of the rights outlined in that landmark document. To help you get into the spirit of things, we’ve compiled a list of 12 Human Rights Day sayings and quotes from some of the most inspirational human rights campaigners from history.

“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” – Nelson Mandela

In South Africa, a system of racial segregation called apartheid was in place from 1948 to the early 1990s. Nelson Mandela led the African National Congress to fight this system of injustice and was imprisoned for nearly thirty years. When he was finally released, efforts to end apartheid continued, leading to the country’s first multiracial general election. He went on to serve as South Africa’s first Black head of state and is still considered one of history’s most significant human rights activists.

“A right delayed is a right denied.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was an American Baptist minister and social justice activist who, as one of the leading figures of the American Civil Rights Movement, campaigned for the equal rights of African Americans.  He inspired countless individuals to stand up for the human rights of Black people everywhere with his principles of civil disobedience and non-violent protest. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom after he was assassinated in 1968.

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.” – Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor who advocated for human rights. By his death in 2016, he had written fifty-seven books, some of which drew directly from his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in concentration camps. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and this quote is from his acceptance speech in which he expressed his belief in the importance of standing up for human rights, regardless of where violations occur and to whom.

“Activism works. So what I’m telling you to do now is to act. Because no one is too small to make a difference.” – Greta Thunberg

One of the world’s youngest and most famous activists today, Greta Thunberg’s blunt and direct challenges to world leaders to tackle climate change have made her an icon for campaigners against our persistent exploitation of the natural world. With the displacement of communities due to climate change already becoming an issue, it’s not hard to argue that the climate crisis is a human rights issue as much as an environmental one. Greta’s inspiring example gives us hope that we can incite change by speaking out.

“It means a great deal to those oppressed to know they are not alone. Never let anyone tell you that what you are doing is insignificant.” – Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu is a South African theologian famous for his work as a human rights activist and for fighting apartheid in his home country. He worked alongside Nelson Mandela in the 1990s to negotiate an end to racial segregation and has since been an outspoken campaigner against other human rights violations, including LGBTQ+ rights. While serving as the Archbishop of Cape Town – the most senior position in the Anglican church in Southern Africa – he oversaw the introduction of female priests into the church.

“My silence has not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” – Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde was an American writer and social justice activist. Describing herself as “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” her poetry and prose communicated the powerful outrage she felt at seeing the countless civil and social injustices in the world around her. Through writing, campaigning and performance, Lorde dedicated her life to, in her own words,  “confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.”

“Let us remember: one book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.” – Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai, more commonly known simply as Malala, is a Pakistani human rights activist and advocate for female education. After she spoke out against the Taliban’s ban on women attending school in the area of Pakistan where she lived, she was the victim of a failed assassination attempt, which resulted in her having to be treated in a hospital in Birmingham. After she recovered, she continued her campaign for the right to education and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. She was the youngest-ever recipient of the award.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, and equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” –  Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. She was a keen activist and campaigner for social justice during this time. Even after her husband – US President Franklin D. Roosevelt – passed away, she continued her tireless work for the rights of people everywhere and was made the US delegate to the United Nations, where she played a pivotal role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This landmark document defines our human rights to this day, and the adoption of which is commemorated by Human Rights Day.

“Another world is not only possible; she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” – Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy is the bestselling author of The God of Small Things (1997). An eloquent and passionate advocate for the protection of human rights, she has written countless essays on politics and culture and is an outspoken opponent of war and imperialism. This quote is from her 2003 collection of essays, War Talk – an inspiring reminder to have hope in the face of adversity.

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil.” – Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was a German philosopher who wrote extensively on totalitarianism, power, and the nature of evil. Being a Jewish woman living in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, she was forced to flee her home, eventually settling in New York. The above quote comes from her most famous work about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the key organizers of the Holocaust. She coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to describe what she saw in Eichmann as a combination of ambition and complacency rather than what we would typically think pure evil or fanaticism. This was not to say that there was anything normal or forgivable about his actions, but instead that they served as a warning that the most brutal human rights violation of the 20th century was arguably brought about in part by a simple lack of action. Arendt’s words remind us to defend human dignity and question and challenge systems that threaten to strip human beings of their fundamental rights.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

The American writer and activist James Baldwin grew up in Harlem, New York City, witnessing first-hand the consequences of racial inequality in America. Throughout his career, he wrote countless essays and novels exploring the psychological effects of racism for both the victims and perpetrators and issues surrounding masculinity and sexuality. He was a master of uncovering the uncomfortable truths of racism in America, becoming an active participant in the civil rights movement. His message of unflinchingly challenging unjust systems sadly still rings true today.

“I recognize no rights but human rights – I know nothing of men’s rights and women’s rights.” – Angelina Grimke

Perhaps one of the less familiar names on this list, Angelina Grimke, was an American political activist during the 19th century. She was a prominent women’s rights advocate, a supporter of women’s suffrage, and, perhaps most remarkably, one of only two White female abolitionists active in the American South before the abolition of slavery – the other was her sister. She is a truly inspirational figure who only in recent years started to receive the recognition she deserves.

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