When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified in 1948, it established a clear international policy that everyone was guaranteed human rights, no matter what their background or circumstance. Now, each year on Human Rights Day , we recognize how far we have come, as well as how far we have to go, in achieving universal human rights for all.
As I write, we face some of the greatest human rights challenges of our time. In Syria, over 2 million refugees have fled their homes as their lives are interrupted by war. In the Central African Republic, escalating clashes between military and civilians are causing deaths and violence enmasse. And in the U.S., we are realizing that poverty, homelessness, and economic inequality are issues that need urgent attention.
Learning about all of this injustice can be frustrating and overwhelming. But I assure you, you can make a difference, no matter what you do. I've spent my career trying to understand and uncover human rights violations around the world, and I can say there are no easy answers, but there are ways to improve situations and make an impact right now.
More than ever, students and professionals are asking me how they can launch a career in the human rights world or even make it part of their current work. Here are a few ways you can get started understanding the issues and making a difference.
Know the Issues
No matter what field you are in, it’s likely that your work touches human rights issues in some way. Whether you're working to ensure best practices in your company's supply chain or ensuring that your staff has safe conditions to work in around the world, think about what aspects of your career already relate to human rights.
Then, identify the human rights themes that you feel passionate about, whether it’s poverty, trafficking, healthcare, or women’s rights. What issues drive you to want and encourage change? Are you interested in issues at home or internationally?
Once you identify the areas you’d like to learn more about, try to see if you can engage with the complexity of the issues and see them from multiple sides. Read and watch everything you can on the subjects, and get informed on general news about the world, so that you can learn about the issues you care about in a global context. Start attending events and lectures on topics you're interested in. Also, follow key influencers who write about your interests on social media, and even begin curating and sharing your own ideas. If you’re looking to pursue a human rights career, it's really key to build your presence and use it to promote awareness and dialogue about the issues you care about.
Understand the Players and Their Impact
When discussing major human rights crises, my students often ask, "Can't the UN take care of it?" Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. While it's key to have these massive worldwide groups taking action, it’s important to understand the scope of their impact. Large organizations with many stakeholders can take years to implement a policy and even more time to change things on the ground. There are also foreign policy issues that can make it difficult to respond quickly, even in a time of crisis.
It’s important to remember that a lot of high-impact human rights work depends on a consortium of organizations, individuals, and leaders who launch human rights initiatives, everything from grassroots organizations that are mobilizing members across the country to major think tanks and research organizations that can publish reports and have influence. And it’s also about the everyday heroes, who are willing to write to their representatives about a human rights issue that moves them, to lobby on the Hill, or even to work abroad. A lot of businesses are also building a human rights awareness into their company policies, ensuring that corporate social responsibility and best practices are kept in mind in every aspect of business.
Knowing that the human rights space has many different players, and understanding what those players do, can help you do work or launch a career in one of the places that's a fit for you.
Get Out There
I once met a man who wrote four books on human rights in Cambodia. When I asked him, “How often do you get out there?” he said, “Oh, I’ve never been.”
There is a place for both theory and practice, but to really understand human rights, it’s important to balance both. If you’re really interested in being involved in human rights, especially internationally, you need to get out there and spend time understanding how issues and concepts play out on the ground. While many human rights frameworks and solutions look great on paper, they impact people’s lives in serious ways, and it’s key to understand the intricacies of the issues.
You can kick start your time in the field by volunteering , taking on research projects, or participating in fellowships, jobs, or internships abroad. Getting out there doesn’t mean trying to implement projects and change overnight, though—it means taking the time to listen, observe, and understand what is happening.
Even if your career doesn't have a direct human rights focus, there are still ways to get involved. I've met accountants, fashion designers, and athletes who are great activists for human rights and can help bring unique ideas to the field.
Getting involved with membership-based organizations like Amnesty International , Living on One , STAND , Partners in Health , or Oxfam is a great way to get started. Even if you are an online-only member, the networks and resources you’ll gain will make a big difference in your outlook, access to information, and career experience.
There are also incredible events to attend and organize both online and off; for example Amnesty's " Write for Rights " campaign is a way you can work on behalf of prisoners of conscience anywhere in the world.
As an individual, you can also lobby your local politicians about a human rights cause you care about or engage in shareholder activism , putting pressure on management and corporate boards to enhance their human rights practice (especially on issues of their environmental policy, their supply chain management, or their investments in certain conflict zones). If you are more interested in organizing instead of policy, you can start putting yourself out there and attending conferences, volunteering, or getting involved in a campaign. You’ll gain experience in organizing, fundraising, advocacy, and public speaking, not to mention build a network—all of which will be a valuable foundation if you want to build your experience in human rights.
Most importantly, keep in mind, that everything from your iPhone to the shirt on your back can be produced in conflict areas or where labor exploitation is prevalent. So, consider your human rights footprint and how daily choices can impact someone’s life in the world.
Today, on Human Rights Day, I challenge you to take on the issues you care about the most and ask yourself how you will make human rights part of your career. These are all simple steps—but ones that can make a huge impact on some of the most pressing global issues of our time.
Photo of colorful hands courtesy of Shutterstock .
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author