Lauren Wedekind is a junior at Stanford University. She attended the WFUNA Youth Human Rights Training in Summer 2014 on behalf of UNA-USA.
By age seventeen, Nam had been forced into marrying a stranger, bearing his child, and risking her life to be a refugee on a remote island. In April 1975, the North Vietnamese Communist Party took over the Republic of South Vietnam, threatening residents of Saigon, South Vietnam’s then-capital and Nam’s hometown. Like thousands of other residents, Nam’s family desperately uprooted from their relatively comfortable living situation, only to cram like sardines into an over-capacity boat headed toward international waters, hoping to be rescued by the United Nations. With their lives in very real danger, the to-be refugees who boarded that boat did so without any guarantee that they would safely cross the passage across the Pacific Ocean. In fact, these “boat people” were held hostage, robbed, raped, and beaten on three separate occasions by pirates in the Sea of China. After the attacks, they floated aimlessly on the ocean for days, and were finally rescued by a UNHCR vessel, which guided them to refugee camps in Indonesia. One year later, Nam and her boat’s survivors—those who were not killed by violence or disease—reached the United States. The survivors who finally reached peacekeeping nations accepting refugees had often endured poverty, abuse, and posttraumatic mental and physical health issues.
At first, upon hearing about the human rights violations that Nam and many other Southeast Asian refugees have endured, I channeled my disbelief only into outrage toward the perpetrators. Why did invaders impel thousands of families to abandon their own homes? How could pirates attack the innocent “boat people”? How many human rights violations could have occurred in transit? These common reactions are completely justified; however, simply demanding the answers to these questions alone will protect neither human dignity of the refugees nor future victims of human rights violations. Members of society at all levels of governance must agree that there is a need for change, and that they will support its enactment. This is the core principle of human rights dialogue.
This summer, I was honored to be nominated by UNA-USA to attend the WFUNA High Commissioner of Human Rights Training in Geneva, in which 30 young human rights advocates representing 25 countries learned about international human rights instruments and the UN Human Rights Council. Through WFUNA’s training curriculum, and even more, through interactions with our peers, our cohort agreed on concepts of fundamental human rights—that people of all ages and backgrounds should be guaranteed: (1) Fundamental human rights and (2) The right to defend these rights. Point (2) necessitates governments exercising structural competence to guarantee the protection of human rights for all members of society. As part of Point (2), listening to many different viewpoints within society has been humbled me: As a human rights advocate, I am responsible for ensuring that I also understand the stories of the marginalized so that I can best voice collective advocacy points to others – advocacy is a two-way street.
When watching the UN Human Rights Council Emergency Session on Gaza with the Human Rights Training in July, I was first awestruck that I was able to watch a history-making decision before my eyes. As I held the wired translator earpiece to my ear for the last hour of the Session in which NGOs were stating their own perceptions of human rights violations on-the-ground, though, I realized that many stakeholders were actually leaving the assembly hall. I wondered: “How can multilateral, international organizations realistically ensure that they respect the human dignity of all members of society without each ambassador engaging with community members who directly experience conflicts on-the-ground?” I respect the major responsibilities of Ambassadors to the UN Human Rights council: (1) Developing realistic pictures of events he/she has often not directly perceived, (2) Communicating these pictures to members of his/her society, and (3) Voicing the collective opinions of his/her constituency on human rights issues in international engagements. These three actions are not simple, but when put into practice, they enable action over apathy.
Since returning to the U.S., I have asked: “How can I be most useful to my society?” After witnessing both multinational cooperation as well as largely unheard voices of NGOs in international human rights dialogue, my belief that human rights advocates are responsible for communicating with all members of their societies, especially the marginalized, has only grown stronger. Infuriated by Nam’s tales of human rights violations experienced by refugees, yet inspired by the potential for more productive international dialogue in venues such as the Human Rights Council, I have committed to teaching young people about human rights, specifically the right to health, on a grassroots level.
In partnership with the Program on Human Rights of the Stanford Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, Afia Khan (Economics ’16) and I are developing a student-initiated course on health and human rights advocacy, which we will launch in 2015, for intermediate school through university-level students. We hope to provide young people with a knowledge base and advocacy toolkit for young people on health and human rights, and to let them know what I have learned from UN Human Rights Council and Nam: Every single person can advocate for human rights – we must start small by exercising compassion to understand others’ experiences, and then share with others what we have learned.
Nam’s name changed to respect confidentiality
Lauren Wedekind is a Stanford undergraduate studying Human Biology and Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Her research focuses on social medicine and the potential for telemedicine to mitigate health care coverage gaps. Lauren believes that human rights advocacy requires a two-way street of listening and communication within and across national and cultural borders—which she explores with Stanford CDDRL, UNA-USA, and WFUNA on projects involving the right to health.