Because We're All Global Citizens Now
By Blanca Vázquez, Project Curator for the Human Rights Video Project
The films in the Human Rights Video Collection cover a range of human rights abuses visited upon populations around the globe today. By attending public screenings of these documentaries and participating in post-screening discussions, we are better able to make connections between our lives and the lives of people who suffer human rights abuses in the U.S. and abroad. And by making these connections, we can better support and advocate for universal human rights standards for all the people of the world.
Bombies - Laotian boy with cluster bomb
The attacks on September 11 were traumatic for many Americans. One result of this immediate experience of pain, loss and violation is that now many Americans find it easier to empathize with the suffering of others, especially those whose lives are marked by sustained combat and conflict. In a way, the mindset that gives rise to human rights advocacy is akin to that of the firefighter. A firefighter does not ask the age, color, ethnicity or class of the people in a burning building. Firefighters save lives, indiscriminately. Implicit in their calling is the belief that all life matters; all lives are worth saving. And valuing life is what human rights work is about, too. The basic tenet of a human rights orientation is the belief that all human beings deserve fundamental rights and opportunities.
The collection takes viewers to different continents. In the film State of Denial, we meet resilient AIDS activists in South Africa organizing to save their own lives and those of their fellow citizens, with little government support. We see women, beaten and raped in Bosnia by people who were once neighbors, find the courage to speak up about their experiences at an international tribunal in Calling the Ghosts. In Long Night's Journey into Day, we see concerned South Africans struggling for truth, reconciliation and healing in their post-apartheid society.
State of Denial - After Chipho has gone on treatment, she has gained weight and is back at school.
Some of the videos bring human rights issues home to U.S. communities, stressing that all societies are a part of the struggle for human rights. As the American relatives of the churchwomen murdered in El Salvador in 1980 sought justice, they found to their dismay that a measure of responsibility for the deaths of their loved ones laid with their own government. Justice and the Generals reveals how the U.S. trained El Salvador's military leaders while ignoring their gross human rights abuses. In Bombies we learn that cluster bombs dropped decades ago by the U.S. in Laos during the Vietnam War are maiming and killing children today who think the baseball-size bombs are toys. Behind the Labels: Garment Workers on US Saipan shows how the "Made in the U.S." label can conceal that Chinese and Filipina women are exploited in a U.S. territory exempt from labor and immigration laws. Finally, Well Founded Fear peers behind the scenes at the Immigration and Naturalization Services, documenting the process refugees undergo when they are seeking asylum in the U.S., as well as the tough decisions immigration officials must make in recommending or denying asylum,
For most of this country's history, certain Americans have been deprived of their human rights because of the color of their skin. This is part of the nation's legacy of slavery and conquest. One arena where this violation is played out is the criminal justice system. Incarceration rates for people of color, and the excessive use of force against people of color by police departments in cities, towns and on the nation's highways, are major areas of concern. In Every Mother's Son we see the mothers of men wrongfully killed by the N.Y.C. Police Department take comfort in each other's grief and seek justice and accountability from the criminal justice system. Books Not Bars documents the activism of young people across the country seeking to change policies that criminalize rather than educate youth-at-risk.
Every Mother's Son - Doris Busch Boskey (L), Kadiatou Diallo and Iris Baez (R), featured in Every Mother's Son, by Tami Gold and Kelly Anderson
These videos also expand our understanding of what human rights encompass. In addition to genocide, torture, or rape as an act of war, the United Nations recognizes an array of economic, social and cultural rights. Going to School considers the educational rights and opportunities for children with disabilities. Life and Debt takes viewers to Jamaica where behind the façade of the tourist industry, the domestic economy operates within the debilitating parameters dictated by various international financial institutions. State of Denial prompts us to consider healthcare as a fundamental human right. Common to these diverse people and communities is an activism born of grief and pain, a commitment to save lives, a respect for the dignity of all human beings and ultimately, a principled and courageous approach to life in the face of great odds.
Much of what stands in the way of human rights advocacy is apathy, a lack of information, or the failure of groups to resolve their differences. Promises illustrates this as it documents the lives of seven children in the Middle East to heart-wrenching effect. Each child struggles to find words to explain the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Through their eyes, we see the seemingly irreconcilable rifts of the adult world. The filmmakers suggest that a path to reconciliation lies in personal contact between Palestinians and Israelis wherein they directly address and seek to understand each other.
Promises - Yarko and Faraj. Photo: Meagan Shapiro
As these videos reveal, we inhabit a world that is interconnected in a multiplicity of ways - we are all global citizens now. It is necessary to grasp this evolving reality if we are to take effective action towards creating a more equitable world for us all. Media is a useful tool to facilitate the conversations that befit a responsible and compassionate global citizenry.