UN matters

Human Rights Day 2012 – My voice counts: Inclusion and the right to participate in public life

Learn about the legal protections U.N. bodies have established for vulnerable populations, how psychologists can promote human rights, and current efforts to ensure dignity and social inclusion for all people.

By Juneau Gary, PsyD, and Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP

Where we come from does not determine who we can become. What we look like places no limits on what we can achieve. We should all have the right to express ourselves, all have the right to be heard, all have the right to be what we can be: To reach for the sky and touch the stars. No matter who we are, no matter whether we are a man or woman, or rich or poor.

My voice, my right. My voice counts.

— Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate

Across the globe, the United Nations’ Human Rights Day is observed annually on Dec. 10. This worldwide celebration marks the anniversary of the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Now translated into over 360 languages, the UDHR was adopted on Dec. 10, 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. The drafting of this document, guaranteeing fundamental human rights for all persons throughout the world, was one of the responses of the international community to the horrors of World War II and the persisting colonialism before, during and afterwards. Today, Human Rights Day is not only a time to remember the past, but also an opportunity to educate everyone regarding their fundamental human rights. As a consequence, depending upon local or national circumstances, Human Rights Day may become a time to acknowledge successes in advancing the cause or in contrast, may serve as an occasion to protest discrimination and injustice where there has been a failure to achieve the vision of the UDHR.

While events are scheduled worldwide on or near Dec. 10, this year, the United Nations’ focal program was held in Geneva, Switzerland. It highlighted the main theme: “Inclusion and the Right to Participate in Public Life.” This theme was particularly salient as recent world events have brought into bold relief the struggles of individuals, communities and societies to find a pathway of guaranteeing this human right. The Geneva event was chaired by Ms. Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Welcome remarks and an opening address were provided by H. E. Ms. Laura Dupuy Lasserre, president of the Human Rights Council and permanent representative of Uruguay to the United Nations Office in Geneva. An impressive musical performance next preceded the keynote speech which was provided by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition leader of the Myanmar Parliament and leader of the National League for Democracy. A video message from former President of the United States, Mr. Jimmy Carter followed, and the event concluded with a panel discussion and another musical performance. (U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2012).

The theme: The right to participate

With advances in information technology, citizens of the world are interconnected as never before. Access to information promotes greater knowledge regarding local and world affairs. Throughout the globe, citizen networks are emerging which address 21st century challenges: (1) world financial crisis, (2) climate change, (3) globalization, and (4) the “right to participate” meaningfully in civic affairs and others.

In societies in which the public feels disenfranchised by resistive governments, their human dignity and self-worth have been emasculated. Shultziner and Rabinovici (2012) define human dignity as “self-worth in order to demonstrate a certain legal-psychological approach” (p. 109). Disenfranchised citizens typically experience social exclusion and denial of recognition, which can result in emotional withdrawal, aggression, and social humiliation (Shultziner & Rabinovici, 2012). Citizens in some countries are beginning to demand their rights to participate in the democratic process and are experiencing social inclusion for the first time. The psychological impact of participation in the democratic process in the context of law and public policy is called social inclusion and aligns with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1954) as it relates to one’s degree of self-worth and emotional well-being. Shultziner and Rabinovici (2012) assert that “positive self-esteem advances optimal functioning, higher efficacy, development (self-enhancement), happiness, satisfaction with life, better performance, and persistence at tasks” (p. 109). History may document that advances in web-based communication systems have enhanced the desire of civil society for inclusion and the right to participate in public affairs. It is this right and the associated values and freedoms, such as freedom of expression, voting rights and freedom of assembly, which are emblazoned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that have been celebrated on Human Rights Day 2012. Bevelander and Pendakur (2011) posit that “One can view the act of casting a ballot in elections as an indicator of inclusion… Participation in elections through voting can constitute an important measure of inclusion because it taps the degree to which individuals feel that they should take part in the decision making process at a very broad level” (p. 72).

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This statement from Article 1 of the UDHR (United Nations, 1945) establishes that human rights are inherent to all human beings, and constitute human security, as postulated by Oman (2010). Human security encompasses social well-being as well as economic well-being and physical safety. Central to human rights laws is that these rights are inalienable and apply equally to all persons. Equality and nondiscrimination are fundamental principles of human rights which are interdependent components of international law. In this sense, human rights are essentially indivisible. The denial of any one right is a denial of others. For example, limitations of freedom of speech and freedom to associate restrict the right to inclusion in public life and compromise voting rights as well as the opportunity to participate in civic affairs. According to Shultziner and Rabinovici (2012), barriers to social inclusion often result in social humiliation. It is therefore the obligation of governments to respect and protect rights and freedoms guaranteed by law to ensure that these governments act in concert with their commitments to secure freedoms and avoid human rights abuses and social humiliation of their citizens.

Legal guarantees 

While the UDHR establishes the foundation for the realization of these aspirations, legal protections have been created to ensure the commitments of Member Nations to fulfill their duties. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), passed by the General Assembly in 1966, provides for these legal protections (United Nations, 1966). Relevant to the Human Rights Day 2012 theme, Article 25 addresses the rights of participation stating, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions… without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;

(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.”

The responsibility for implementing the Covenant rests with the United Nations Human Rights Committee. With respect to Article 25, the charge of this committee has been to clearly define what the right to participate involves; who it applies to; and how can this right be ensured. However, with respect to the right to participate and other fundamental rights, disenfranchised groups of citizens are subject to discrimination and human rights abuses. As a consequence, the world community has formulated additional documents, called conventions and declarations, to define and implement guarantees for securing the human rights of traditionally disenfranchised groups within their respective culture or country, which include women, children, indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities. In order to address histories of discrimination, legal protections of their rights have been written into international law:

  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was passed by the General Assembly in 1979 (United Nations, 1979). It is known worldwide as the international bill of rights for women. The Convention provides for women's equality in political and public life. With respect to the rights to participation, these rights include the right to vote and to stand for election. Also guaranteed are rights to education, health and employment. Among other provisions specific to women’s concerns, are women’s rights to acquire, retain or change their nationality and protections against gender-specific forms of exploitation, such as trafficking.

  • The Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) was passed by the General Assembly in 1989 (United Nations, 1989). With a view to recognizing that children also have rights, the CRC was the first legally binding document guaranteeing those rights for children. Essentially, leaders of Member Nations realized that children needed special attention to their rights as a vulnerable group not well protected by previous documents. There are four basic principles in the CRC: (1) nondiscrimination; (2) devotion to the best interests of the child; (3) right to life, survival and development; and (4) respect for the views of the child. While children are not expected to vote, their right to participation is guaranteed in Article 12 of the Convention which emphasizes their voice in issues affecting their lives.

  • The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 (United Nations, 2007). This document is not legally binding but calls for governments to prohibit discrimination against indigenous populations and to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. The Declaration underscores: (1) importance of respect for cultural heritage and traditions; (2) strength of indigenous institutions; (3) right to collaborate between governments and indigenous peoples; and (4) assertions of their own distinct vision in economic and social realms.

  • The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the General Assembly in 2006 and became effective in 2008 (United Nations, 2006). The Convention addresses critical questions, such as what is a disability, and what are reasonable accommodations? The rights of participation for persons with disabilities are outlined in Articles 29 and 30. Eight guiding principles are articulated to raise awareness and prevent discrimination: (1) respect for inherent dignity and individual autonomy; (2) nondiscrimination; (3) full and effective participation and inclusion in society; (4) respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity; (5) equality of opportunity; (6) accessibility; (7) equality between men and women; and (8) respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and their right to preserve their identities.

Psychologists work closely with these four disenfranchised groups, whose rights have been violated historically. It is of professional importance that we not only provide services to alleviate suffering but also advocate for their human rights (Kinderman, 2007). In doing so, psychologists advocate for social inclusion, enhanced feelings of self-worth, and psychological and social well-being.

My voice counts

In the shadows of World War II, following the horrors of the Holocaust, persisting colonialism, and growing social injustice, the UDHR represented a new vision for the inherent dignity and respect of all human beings. Bringing these soaring aspirations to fruition has been an uneven road marked by successes and failures. The progress in establishing international guarantees for the protection of fundamental human rights should be celebrated each year on Human Rights Day. This year, the right to have your voice heard and to be able to participate in the processes that shape community life have been highlighted as individuals (e.g., Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar) and communities (e.g., Arab Spring) challenge autocratic rulers and the intransigence of governments and attempt to implement democratic reforms. Those who are disenfranchised need a beacon of hope from professions such as psychology, to reinforce that they have a voice in ending discrimination and human rights abuses. Psychologists must continue to challenge all forms of human rights abuses and use advocacy skills to influence public policy and international law to promote human rights (Kinderman, 2007). This includes a concern for social justice and social inclusion. In doing so, all citizens will be able to stand on the shoulders of psychologists and exclaim, “My voice counts!” Yes, their voices count!


Bevelander, P, & Pendakur, R. (2011). Voting and social inclusion in Sweden. International Migration, 49(4), 67-92. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2435.2010.00605.x

Kinderman, P. (2007). Human rights and applied psychology. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 17, 218-228. doi:10.1002/casp.917

Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper Press.

Oman, N. (2010). Hannah Arendt’s "Right to Have Rights:" A philosophical context of human security. Journal of Human Rights, 9, 279-302. doi:10.1080/14754835.2010.501262

Shultziner, D., & Rabinovici, I. (2012). Human dignity, selfworth, and humiliation: A comparative legal-psychological approach. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 18(1), 105-143. doi:10.1037/a0024585

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2012). My Voice Counts: 2012 Human Rights Day. Retrieved from: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Day2012/Pages/EventsNewYorkandGeneva.aspx

United Nations. (2007). Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved from: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N06/512/07/PDF/N0651207.pdf?OpenElement

United Nations. (2006). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml

United Nations. (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved from: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm

United Nations. (1979). Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw.htm

United Nations. (1966). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Retrieved from: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/ccpr.htm

United Nations. (1945). Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice. Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/intro.shtml

About the co-editors

Juneau Gary, PsyD (APA main representative to DPI) is professor in the Department of Counselor Education at Kean University in New Jersey, and Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP (APA representative to DPI) is professor at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology of Argosy University in Chicago. Both are APA NGO Representatives to the U.N. Department of Public Information and are co-editors of this column.