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Every human has rights - A conference call with Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, and Graça Machel

Today, I spoke to Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, and Graca Machel on the phone. I wish I could say that happened often! Global Voices Online was asked to invite only six bloggers to participate in a conference call to help spread the word about their new alliance of 13 world leaders, The Elders, and the campaign they are launching tomrorrow called Every Human has Rights. I joined from Berlin. The Elders were in Cape Town, taking a break from talking to UNICEF youth leaders on CNN.

Tomorrow is Human Rights Day and the beginning of the 60th anniversary for the UN Declaration of Human Rights. These world leaders of activists are marking it with an effort to "reclaim human rights for individuals". Inspired by the possibilities of new technology, they are reaching out to world citizens and asking them to tell their own stories of resistance and survival, and broadcast them through blogs and citizen video networks like The Hub.

The Elders have also launched an online petition in support of the Declaration of Human Rights. Desmond Tutu said he would like to see “a billion” signatures on it. I wonder how many have even read it? Considering the enormous mailing lists of organizations like Amnesty International, UNICEF, Action Aid, and other who are partnering in the effort, it shouldn’t take too long to reach the first million signatures. But 1 billion signatures? Has that even been done before?

A group of the most revered and respected human rights leaders including Nelson Mandela and Aung Sang Suu Kyi may not seem the most ideal candidates to make a campaign seem accessible and down to earth. But the elders we spoke to on the phone were jovial and friendly. They even sounded ready to fall off their chairs laughing when the conference call system failed to put through our questions. “Did anyone hear what we just said?” they laughed, thinking they had been talking to themselves.

We were listening. And we had been waiting in New York, Singapore, China, London, and Pakistan for close to an hour on-hold, while call-organizers got the Elders into the same room, then had problems with the phone, then had to get them all back into the room again. “It’s like herding cats,” said one. “And we wait like mice,” said one blogger. Who said global communication is easy? Conference call operators were in charge of putting us through to ask questions, but they didn’t seem to be able to hear us.

“The last thing we want is for this to be elitist in the bad sense. When we were struggling with apartheid, we spoke of 'people power'. You had to be with the people if you wanted to see change happen,” said Desmond Tutu, the former Chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“For different reasons we have become known, and it brings along the responsibility of allowing those who are unknown to be known,” said Graça Machel, a women and children’s rights activist of international stature. “The face and the voice of people resisting is never considered. On CNN they will tell you of explosions and how many people have been killed in Iraq. But how many times do they tell you about children? These are the people who are resisting. They keep their lives running,” she said.

The Elders are appealing to bloggers and citizen media activists to help tell the stories of small NGOs and individuals who are resisting. “We see ourselves as those who want to amplify,” said Desmond Tutu. Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland, and former UN human rights commissioner, spoke of the “extraordinary power of communications,” gave examples of online activism in China, and praised the work of alternative media websites like The Hub, openDemocracy.net, and Global Voices Online.

“You bloggers are a part of it,” said Mary Robinson, and appealed for help in figuring out how the campaign should move forward. There are only 13 Elders. The millions of women, children, and men around the world suffering human rights abuses must come forward and help tell the stories that will enable groups like The Elders to campaign more effectively for change.


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