Champions of Human Rights

Twenty-seven million people live in slavery—more than twice the number during the peak of the slave trade. And more than a billion adults are unable to read. Given the magnitude of human rights violations—and those listed in the Violations of Human Rights section of this website are only a glimpse of the full picture—it is not surprising that 90 percent of people are unable to name more than three of their thirty rights.

Who, then, with so many unaware of their most basic rights, will make sure that human rights are promoted, protected and become a reality?

To answer that question, we can draw inspiration from those who made a difference and helped create the human rights we have today. These humanitarians stood up for human rights because they recognized that peace and progress can never be achieved without them. Each, in a significant way, changed the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr., when championing the rights of people of color in the United States in the 1960s, declared, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The great advocate of peaceful resistance to oppression, Mahatma Gandhi, described nonviolence as “the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.”

Fighting fiercely against religious persecution in eighteenth-century France, Voltaire wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Thomas Jefferson, inspiration and principal author of the American Declaration of Independence, declared that “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.”

There are those who, through thought and action, have made a difference and changed our world. Among them are the following humanitarians, each a powerful and effective advocate and each an inspiration to all who today dedicate themselves to the cause of universal rights:

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 –1948)

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 –1962)

César Chávez (1927–1993)

Nelson Mandela (1918 –2013)

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 –1968)

Desmond Tutu (1931–2021)

Oscar Arias Sánchez (b. 1940)

Muhammad Yunus (b. 1940)

José Ramos-Horta (b. 1949)