Throughout the history of human rights, certain moments stand out. Their effects reverberate through time, and though certain moments may not have been beneficial to humanity, it’s still important to remember them. The things people say – either at the specific moment or later in reflection – provide insight into the past and inspiration for the future. This selection of human rights quotes marks historic moments like the signing of the United Nations Charter, the 70th-anniversary of Hiroshima, and the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States.
#1. “We must build a new world – a far better world – one in which the eternal dignity of man is respected.” – US President Harry Truman on June 26th, 1945, at the signing of the United Nations Charter
When Truman signed the United Nations Charter in June of 1945, the world was reeling from two major world wars in the span of 30 years. People hoped that this new organization – the United Nations – might usher in a new time of international negotiation and peace. Truman’s quote embodies that hope. The United States became the first nation to finish the ratification process, setting itself up as a major player in human rights.
#2. “We must not be deluded by the efforts of the forces of reaction to prostitute the great words of our free tradition and thereby to confuse the struggle. Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world which we must not allow any nation to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship.” – Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1948, in her speech “The Struggle for Human Rights”
Eleanor Roosevelt delivered this speech as chair of the United Nations committee responsible for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The speech’s goal was to convince UN member states to vote for the declaration and recognize the universal nature of human rights. Roosevelt targeted the Soviet Union, which possessed very different ideas about what human rights were. In this quote, the First Lady warns that to serve their own purposes, nations will try to twist the debate to redefine what human rights are. We can see that happening to this day.
#3. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” – Martin Luther King Jr., at the 1963 March on Washington, in his speech “I Have A Dream”
In 1963, around 250,000 people gathered in front of the Washington Lincoln Memorial to call out for the rights of African-Americans. There, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. All of it is memorable, but this excerpt in particular sums up the essence of his message. He quotes from the US Constitution itself, expressing hope that one day, America will be able to make it a reality. While progress has been made since the 1960’s, Dr. King’s dream has yet to be fully realized.
#4. “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.” – Elie Wiesel giving his acceptance speech for the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize
Author and activist Elie Wiesel survived the Holocaust and spent his life advocating for human rights all over the world. In this now-iconic quote from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel expresses the importance of taking a stand when human rights are violated. Because human rights are universal, it doesn’t matter where the violations and abuses occur.
#5. “We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.” – Nelson Mandela giving his inaugural speech in 1994
From 1948 into the early 1990’s, the system of apartheid – racial segregation – ruled South Africa. The African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, fought against the system. Mandela was arrested and spent almost 30 years in prison. Upon his release, efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to apartheid began, and in 1994, the first multiracial general election took place. Mandela was elected president. In this excerpt from his inaugural speech, he emphasizes the importance of uniting for the sake of a better future.
#6. “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” – Hillary Clinton at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995
In 1995, the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, China. The issue of women’s rights was sensitive given China’s one-child policy frequently led to the abandonment of baby girls. Clinton was actually pressured to soften her remarks, but instead, she doubled down without naming names. The conference kicked off a more intentional effort toward achieving gender equality and respecting the rights of women, while Clinton’s speech is considered one of the modern era’s most influential speeches.
#7. “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.” – President Barack Obama at his 2009 inauguration
In 2009, Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States. At his inauguration, he touched on one of the biggest challenges in human rights: the balance between security and holding to our ideals. So many times in history, human rights have been “put on hold” for the sake of national security or safety. While the Obama administration certainly doesn’t have a perfect record on human rights, this quote is still an important reminder.
#8. “We must work for a world where people of all cultures and beliefs live together in mutual respect and full equality. Non-violence does not mean non-action. It takes courage to stand up to those who use violence to enforce their will or beliefs. It requires resolve to face down injustice, discrimination and brutality.” – Ban Ki-moon in 2013, “Remarks on the International Day of Non-Violence”
Ban Ki-moon served as Secretary-General of the United Nations from 2007-2016. The International Day of Non-Violence is on October 2, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. In his 2013 remarks, on the 144th anniversary Gandhi’s birth, Ban Ki-moon makes the important clarification that practicing non-violence doesn’t mean not doing anything. This is similar to what Elie Wiesel said about how silence encourages the tormentor. Defending human rights takes work.
#9. “I barely have the energy to campaign these days, and I’m no longer scared of dying. But at the same time I realise that it’s our duty as survivors to carry on for as long as possible, to honour the memory of those who are no longer with us.” – Hiroko Hatakeyama in 2015, the 70th-anniversary of Hiroshima
The bombing of Hiroshima killed 140,000 by the end of 1945. Radiation caused diseases which claimed many more lives years after. Hiroko Hatakeyama was only six years old in 1945, but she’s spent her whole life speaking out about the bombing. This quote represents the burden that survivors of events like Hiroshima (which many consider to be a war crime) feel they must carry.
#10. “It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” – Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion for the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states
In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-4 decision in Obergefell V Hodges that made federal gay marriage legal. While individual states like Pennsylvania, Maine, and Washington recognized same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court had put off taking a stand for a long time. The 2015 decision represented a huge victory for the LGBTQ+ community and in his opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledges its significance.