FEATURED: Human Rights Day

Human Rights Day: Abilities beyond perceived inabilities

Human Rights Day is observed every year on 10 December — the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): a milestone document proclaiming the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

The UN theme for the 2019 International Human Rights Day celebrations is: Youth Standing Up for Human Rights. As human rights are cross-cutting, and under the universal call to action "Stand Up for Human rights," we choose to focus on people with disabilities.

The UN Convention for Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, defines persons with disabilities as ‘those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’. We celebrate to highlight the need for everyone to respect, promote and fulfill the rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities. In addition to promoting equal rights for all, HRD serves to call on all stakeholders to make the required changes in their institutions and environment such that persons with disabilities can effectively exercise their rights and enjoy their fundamental freedoms.  

Last week, the One UN joined the Government of Rwanda and the Globe to celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities under the theme ‘Promoting the participation of persons with disabilities and their leadership: taking action on the 2030 Development Agenda’.

More effective inclusion of persons with disability is overdue, and no country can realize the pledge of the 2030 agenda to “leave no one behind” without making greater efforts to address the needs of persons living with disabilities.  The 2019 HRD theme calls on not only Youth but all of us stand up for human rights and recognize persons with disabilities as active and valued members of their society and to see their leadership potential as valuable assets that can help countries to develop. Unfortunately, experience shows that there tends to be a stronger emphasis on the perceived inabilities of persons with disabilities than the many abilities that they have. Consequently, we are all deprived of the skills and talents of these members of our societies.

In Rwanda, dignity is commonly referred to as “agaciro”. This is a word which nourished and encouraged the philosophy of dignity and self-reliance among Rwandans and shaped the recovery and development journey of Rwanda after the Genocide against the Tutsi. Rwandans believed that the future of their country depended on them and their own hard work. They also aspired to create a society in which every Rwandan have a place; an inclusive society where every person would be equal in rights and dignity. This is in line with the first provision of the Human Rights declaration which states: “all human beings are born equal in rights and dignity”.

This principle was domesticated through article 16 of the Rwandan constitution of 2003 as amended in 2015 which states: “All Rwandans are born and remain equal in rights and freedoms. Discrimination of any kind or its propaganda based on, inter alia, ethnic origin, family or ancestry, clan, skin color or race, sex, region, economic categories, religion or faith, opinion, fortune, cultural differences, language, economic status, physical or mental disability or any other form of discrimination are prohibited and punishable by law.” These provisions serve as a legal guarantee for dignity, equality and nondiscrimination including on the basis of disability.

Despite political will and legal guarantees, persons with disabilities are generally denied many of their rights and dignity across the world. This is often due to discrimination and stigma in society. We see this discrimination and stigma in the way people relate to persons with disability and in the language that is used towards them, their parents and their siblings. We also see it in the names people give them, the way people look at them and the manner in which they are often dismissed, excluded and marginalized in schools and businesses etc.

This is why we must work hard on changing mindsets and improving awareness. We need the current and the next generation to realize that people with disabilities are still people, who think and dream and feel the same way we do. And they have abilities, as much as the rest of us, but they sometimes need some assistance to realize their full potential.

The Sustainable Development Goals (Agenda 2030) calls for the empowerment of persons with disabilities in all spheres of life. Disability is referenced in various parts of this Agenda and specifically in parts related to education, economic growth and employment, inequality, accessibility of human settlements, access to services, as well as data collection and monitoring. The 2030 Agenda encourages us to focus on providing fair and equitable opportunities to all, including persons with disabilities.

Disability inclusion is also informed by the UN disability inclusion strategy, the Sendai framework and the humanitarian framework for inclusion of persons with disabilities which inform action by the different UN agencies in Rwanda. These frameworks converge on reiterating that the need for equality in rights and dignity but also the fight against any form of discrimination because “disability is not inability”. It is about enabling access to services and facilities such as health, education, transport, finance, and so on. It is about making spaces welcoming and friendly to persons with disabilities.

How often do we stop to ask, “How accessible are our homes, schools, hospitals, public transport, churches, public offices, entertainment buildings to persons with disabilities?” Do we include sign language in meetings and television? Do we welcome persons with disabilities in our workshops and on our panels to discuss important topics pertinent to all? In our families, study and work environments, in our churches and communities, are we having conversations about the needs and rights and abilities of persons with disability?

It is not only an issue of access to services. Persons with disabilities should also be given the space to actively participate in public, democratic and development processes and everyone can enjoy the civil, social, economic, and political rights to which they are all entitled. This is fundamental for the realization of a world in which no one is left behind.  Their voices count! Their contribution matters!

Finally, empowerment is about equipping persons with disabilities with skills and facilities, including assistive devices, which allow them to actively and independently contribute to the development of themselves, their families, communities and countries. It is about not giving them a fish to survive on for a day but teaching them to fish to create a better future and, and also contribute to Rwanda’s development.

As we celebrate Human Rights Day, let us value our parents, brothers, sisters, children and friends who have a disability, and let us value them for their inborn worth and for the abilities that they have which today’s world can greatly benefit from. Let us promote their dignity and empowerment because they can make this world better than it is today. Let us ensure that the world is no longer deprived of their contribution but enriched by their abilities. Let us make way for them to participate in our journey to 2030- “the world we want” and to 2050 towards the “Rwanda we want”.


2019: Secretary-General's Message (António Guterres)

This year, on Human Rights Day, we celebrate the role of young people in bringing human rights to life.

Globally, young people are marching, organizing, and speaking out:

For the right to a healthy environment…
For the equal rights of women and girls…
To participate in decision-making…
And to express their opinions freely…

They are marching for their right to a future of peace, justice and equal opportunities.

Every single person is entitled to all rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural. Regardless of where they live. Regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, social origin, gender, sexual orientation, political or other opinion, disability or income, or any other status.

On this International Day, I call on everyone to support and protect young people who are standing up for human rights.


2019: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' Message (Michelle Bachelet)

Raising our voices is essential to the creation of a future of peace, justice and sustainable development. And this has been a year of tremendous activism – notably by young people.

In every region, people are working for hope.

From the accelerating climate crisis to the fight against inequality and repressive institutions.

From the right to make informed decisions about our own bodies to the right to participate in defining policies for our countries.

I am inspired by the courage, clarity and principle of the women, men and young people who are rising up peacefully, to create greater freedom and justice.

Their voices are the living expression of human rights – a movement that is fundamentally about building dignity and equality for everyone.

Policy-makers everywhere need to listen to these calls. And in response, they need to shape more effective, more principled policies.

We have a right to live free from discrimination on any grounds. We have a right to access education, health-care, economic opportunities and a decent standard of living.

This is about our future, our livelihoods, our freedoms, our security and our environment.

We need to mobilise across the world–peacefully and powerfully – to advance a world of rights, dignity and choice for everyone.

With renewed determination, we all need to stand up for human rights.


2019: General Assembly President's Message (Tijjani Muhammad-Bande)

For more than seventy years the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been a milestone document that proclaimed the inalienable rights which everyone is entitled to -- regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language or other status.  

Human Rights are the foundation of peace, development, and justice and are at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

The theme of the 2019 Human Rights Day is: Youth Standing Up for Human Rights.

The active engagement of youth in all facets of life is central to achieving inclusive and stable societies. 

We have to utilize the idealism of youth and empower them to stand up for equal rights and fair treatment of everyone everywhere.

Human rights are for everyone.

We need to ensure that youth have the right to participate in decision-making and have their voices heard.  

As President of the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, I have chosen quality education and inclusion among my priorities.

Access to inclusive quality education empowers youth to better know and claim their rights. 

As Malala Yousafzai says:  

“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.” 

As we end the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence today, I commend the contributions of women human rights defenders worldwide for their dedication to upholding our human rights. 


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