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Human Rights at the heart of a community…Why?

Bridport has declared its intention to be the first Rights-Respecting town in England with its own Rights Charter. In this blog I attempt to explain what this means for me and how it was local schoolchildren who made it happen: 

I was born in the middle of the 20th Century. The world was still recovering from the slaughter and destruction of two global wars, but there was a sense of local and international optimism as I grew through my teenage and young adult years. In England, the NHS was created to provide quality health care for all.  Countries in Europe came together as partners in the European Economic Community, later the European Union, set up to end centuries of European war. From a world, bruised and battered by global war arose the United Nations, aiming to bring all countries together to forge respectful & peaceful relationships.

Social reformer, Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the United Nations group that created the UN Charter, a commitment to uphold the human rights of all citizens, followed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948. A fundamental requirement of a government is to protect the vulnerable in society. The world’s children had been orphaned, traumatised and abused through war. In 1989 the UN agreed to secure the protection of all children within the cradle of the articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

I have been Headteacher of two Dorset schools and in 2008 was invited to work with the UN’s children’s arm, UNICEF, UK to help develop and pilot a national schools accreditation programme called the ‘Rights-Respecting Schools Award’. In signing up to the UNCRC, which our country did in 1991, our State is required to ensure the UNCRC is ‘…widely known by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike.’ The aim of the award is to incentivise schools to ensure this obligation is met. In doing so, young people recognise their rights, for example, to be protected from harm, and consequently the need to respect the rights of all other children not to be harmed. They grow a sense of responsibility and respect in the way they behave to others.

Charters are drawn up by all young people and adults in rights-respecting schools. Key rights are identified, and children gain an understanding that they own these rights, and that all adults are duty-bearers to ensure children are protected as they grow to adulthood. Children also recognise that, though not duty-bearers themselves, they need to respect the rights of all other children and adults and behave accordingly, as respectful young local and global citizens. They grow to understand that, although all children globally have these rights, many cannot access them, due to conflict, poverty or neglect.

In 2012 children from Bridport schools that were engaged with the UNICEF award met with town councillors and asked if the town could consider becoming ‘Rights-Respecting’. Public consultations took place and key human rights identified in the first Bridport Rights Charter. In January 2018 Bridport town council adopted the Charter and Mayor Anne Rickard declared Bridport the first council in the UK to commit to becoming a Rights Respecting Town.

Individually, we face unprecedented challenges and opportunities locally and globally. We are all vulnerable to manipulation by the media, politicians and commercialism in this post-truth world. The better we understand the rights we hold, the better empowered we are to recognise when individuals and organisations are aiming to exploit us. We can make more informed choice. Collectively, we inhabit a world of increasingly complex geopolitics, divided by economic inequality, ethnicity, culture and religion. No wonder we struggle to move forward, to tackle transnational challenges that threaten us all. Human rights provide a global set of legitimate standards, a foundation of values from which governments can construct meaningful solutions.

Eleanor Roosevelt stated, ‘Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.’ By becoming a Rights-Respecting town, we can’t be expected to change the world, but we can use the human rights principles in the charter to shape our communities into models of kindness, respect and empowerment. In honouring the rights won through the sacrifice of so many, we honour them and their memory.

There is a steering group of town citizens, developing the project. Our vision is for Bridport to be a town that champions human rights and equal opportunity for all – a town where all can live in safety, in peace and with dignity. A town where we help each other to live sustainably and promote a respectful relationship with each other and our environment. A Rights-Respecting town.

So, where do we go from here? The steering group submitted a successful bid for funds to develop our project. We have recruited a co-ordinator to manage the activity developing around the project, and we have commissioned local PR company, Watershed to help us with communication across the town. The two biggest town schools, Colfox and Bridport Primary School continue to work with UNICEF to improve the wellbeing of all, young and old alike, through recognising and respecting human rights principles. Our town council is reviewing its activity to ensure that human rights are at the heart of its policies and practice and our recently appointed coordinator is looking to hold community conversations to further explore how being a Rights-Respecting town could improve the lives of our citizens. We will engage with our local villages to see if they’d like to become involved with the project.

If we can see evidence of success this year, we will look to bid for further funding to strengthen our town as the first Rights-Respecting town in England and offer Bridport as a model for other communities to follow. My parents’ & grandparents’ generations sacrificed so much to overcome fascism, secure democracy and see global human rights emerge from the destruction of two World Wars. I believe we honour this sacrifice by keeping these rights clearly in focus in these troubled times. In doing so, we honour the memory of all who made such sacrifice to protect our democracy and secure our human rights. We don’t have to wait until 11th November each year, we remember through our actions every day.

I wrote a song ‘Light to the Darkness’ to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. It was performed at Bridport Arts Centre last November by a group of musicians and singers, the youngest fourteen, the oldest eighty years old. The final verse pays tribute to those who gave so much in war.

Your grandchildren play in the town you grew up in

A town that will honour the rights that you won

Hope is the sunrise that greets each new dawning

Light to the darkness, we shall overcome 

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