So much text, so little Kate

Kate Gilmore, the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, spoke at the Law School yesterday afternoon on the transformative nature of human rights. Managing Editor Betsy Ladyzhets, a human with rights, gives her take on the speech and the discussion that followed.

Few things make me feel cooler than successfully getting into the Law Library without attracting suspicion. Once I found my way downstairs and into a lecture room, however, I soon felt that any coolness I may had acquired paled in comparison to that of the speaker, Kate Gilmore, a UN Deputy High Commissioner and wearer of [stunning] pink pants. Her introduction extolled her past accomplishments, as Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Executive Director Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Executive Director for Programmes with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and Executive Deputy Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Ms. Gilmore’s speech yesterday was a keynote address marking the end of a speaker series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her speech was a powerful rhetorical address challenging the nature of human rights discourse in the world right now, and calling the students in the room to action.

“I am hoping to give you a flavor of the things that are troubling the world through the lens of human rights,” Ms. Gilmore began. She said that most people view human rights as an event that occurs in a courtroom, where she sees them more as an abstract construction of values defining the relationship between the state and the individual.

“Human rights is the anatomy of the self existing in social, political, and economic space,” she said.

From there, Ms. Gilmore went on to describe some of the major changes that have been wrought upon human rights discourse in recent years. She described millions of people “on the move”, displaced by conflict, persecution, climate change, and other forms of destruction. There are more people on the move now than ever before in human history, she said, and more people living in urban areas than ever before. And the response to this move has been “a rise of toxic hatred for the other… a sour soup of xenophobia stood up by reckless political profiteers.”

Ms. Gilmore also touched upon the nature of age in modern society. She stated that the largest generation of adolescents in all human history is concentrated in areas of least prosperity, while the largest generation of older people is concentrated in areas of most prosperity. As an example, she compared the median age of Germany (47) to the median age of Niger (15).

After providing that overview, Ms. Gilmore turned to criticizing what she called “sinister, populist ideologies.” She referred rather generally to Western leaders attempting to go against international sanctions for the sake of profit, though tactics such as surveillance, segregation, and denying life-saving services.

“Friends, if you ask me, the pounding of these malicious fists grows louder and louder… this has to be resisted,” Ms. Gilmore said. “Humanity has walked down this path before, we know only too well it leads to a dead end, a death-ridden end.”

Ms. Gilmore then asserted that, as a result of the adversity created by power-hungry, populist leaders, the struggle for human rights has become both more global and more crucial than ever. She spoke of the rights not to be subjected to hate, violence, or discrimination, and the rights to not be denied arbitrarily, nor deprived of voice

“You don’t have to like me to respect my rights,” she said. “I don’t have to be like you to uphold your rights. We don’t have to agree with each other to defend each other’s rights.”

At this point, Ms. Gilmore posed the question: what must we do in the face of today’s adversity to protect human rights? Her answer was that we must stand up to the task, in “using our rights to defend other rights.” She linked professions to means of activism, by speaking of doctors who fight for universal healthcare, lawyers who uphold justice in the courtroom, scientists who seek to deploy knowledge for the sake of a planet under strain, artists who disturb and provoke and enchant, lovers who seek first most freely each other’s consent, and economists in search of a more just distribution of wealth.

Ms. Gilmore drew an allusion to Billie Holiday, a jazz singer-songwriter who stood up for the rights of others when she “used a poet’s voice” to speak out about lynchings of black people in the south. Ms. Gilmore quoted Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit”, with the lyrics: “Southern trees bear strange fruit… strange fruit hanging on the poplar trees.” Then, she put her own spin on the words: “Today, strange fruit is hanging on populist trees.”

The speech concluded with a call to action to the audience, to “stand up, to stand out, for what we must stand for.” “They may burn every book, char every page of reason, turn every loving and tolerant word to ash,” she said, “but we must stay true, and know that human rights are incombustible.”

After this rousing speech, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. Law school students and other community audience members posed questions on everything from the creation of human rights out of democracy to how a country such as Saudi Arabia can sit on the UN Human Rights Council. Ms. Gilmore took each question in stride, and engaged the audience by moving around in the front of the room and occasionally pointing to the person who had asked her a question. She also proved to be just as eloquent while improvising as she had been while reciting a practiced speech, in speaking about countries that have committed human rights violations sitting on that council:

“Human rights council is a piazza… You do not want any piazza that keeps the bad guys out and only has the good guys stroking their backs. That’s not a piazza, that’s a club.”

Ms. Gilmore also spoke about hope for enacting true change and achievement of universal rights, a hope that for her comes from “a generation of young people more connected, less bigoted, more creative.” She lamented that these people are “going to come to power too late for us to take full advantage of their creativity”, and expressed the need for policy changes that would bring younger people into power sooner.

“My generation really is not to be trusted,” she said. “Hashtag hand it over.”

Although I found it difficult to follow some of the more generalizing and fundamentalist parts of Ms. Gilmore’s rhetoric, it is impossible to deny that her rousing call to action and expert use of alliteration had a profound effect on her audience. She made us believe, for an hour, that universal human rights would truly come to be practiced in all parts of the world, if each and every one of us stood up and demanded rights and justice for all. Perhaps this is a naive belief, perhaps it is an unrealistic belief – but if Kate Gilmore can believe it, then that’s enough for me.

Image via Columbia Human Rights site