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Opinion: Honoring Nelson Mandela and Remembering, 'It Always Seems Impossible Until It's Done'

By:  John Morrison Dec 6, 2013
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On this Human Rights Day, we remember the life of Nelson Mandela and recall the importance of his leadership in advancing the human rights movement both in South Africa and around the world. I wonder what other human rights icons that inspired so many like Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi would think of our time? What would they say we should be doing better or differently to make human rights a reality for all?

Whenever I come to Atlanta, I am struck by how much Dr. King was inspired by Gandhi’s own legacy – his own memorial in classic South Asian style, not what you normally see in Georgia. It is good to hear that Atlanta, the home of a certain beverage company, will soon host the first human rights museum in the United States. The fight for civil rights is indeed an honorable American tradition. Yet most Americans – and people in many other countries – still see human rights as something that affects people abroad rather than at home. As Rosa Parks opposed injustice and ended up being a heroine personifying the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so too should we all as we face the opportunities and challenges of 2014.

The world is shrinking. Stand still and you will feel it. As the global population moves towards the 7.2 billion mark, so too do pressures on natural resources: oil, gas, water, land and many of the commodities needed for our modern way of life. 

The illegal confiscation of land, by big companies and others, is a growing problem displacing many poor people every year. The Coca-Cola Company has made an important commitment this year to ensure that it does not happen in its supply chain. We hope more companies will follow in 2014. It is also encouraging to see that many of the world’s largest mining companies now recognize the free, prior and informed consent of the world’s indigenous people and extend the principle as “best practice” to other vulnerable communities, as do a growing number of governments.


But the rush to gain access to commodities continues. Governments, business and civil society must ensure that the rights of the poor and marginalized are not trampled in the rush. It's good, too, that a growing number of governments are now legislating to ensure that conflict minerals are not used in our mobile phones and computers, and good that the scourge of slavery and labor exploitation is recognized as a problem of today and not just in distant past. But the factory disaster in Bangladesh earlier in 2013, in which over 1,100 workers – many of them women – lost their lives, reminds us that even issues as basic as the right to life cannot be taken for granted, including in the workplace.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration begins with the words, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This truth must be the basis of our collective vision in the year ahead. In too many places, people are still judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character (as Dr. King put it so eloquently), or their gender, their religion, their sexual preferences, whom they marry, whether they are fully or partly able. Events like the 2014 Winter Olympics and other great sporting events next year, and in years to come, must celebrate the fullness and richness of humankind – and not set anyone apart. We should be judged by our actions as they impact upon others, not by how we define ourselves.

As we look ahead to 2014, we should also be mindful of new human rights challenges and how they can be overcome. One of the emerging issues for those of us who work on human rights as they relate to business is that of privacy. If the Internet had been invented more than 65 years ago, it may have made its way into the Universal Declaration itself. New technologies enable countless millions to learn about and enjoy fundamental rights. But they also pose dilemmas we don’t often think about.


For the first time in human history, whatever we say or do in cyberspace or via other electronic communications can be recorded – not just within our lifetimes, but forever. Our digital lives are immortal, whether we like it or not, and our children and children’s children will be able to read about us through our own words, our own images or movies. Governments and companies look after this “Big Data” on our behalf, sometimes for our own security, and the relationship needs to be built on trust – not just the leaders of today, but also that the leaders of tomorrow will also act responsibly with this information. At stake is not just our own privacy, but also that of all those that come after. The Internet and modern technologies urgently need some “rules of the road” to safeguard the freedom or liberty for us, as well as for the generations to come.

John Morrison

John Morrison

You can learn more about this and other emerging business and human rights issues for 2014 by visiting the Institute for Human Rights and Business and our fifth annual Top 10 list for the year ahead that we release each year on Human Rights Day.

The challenges ahead are hard; some of those challenges will take a long time to overcome. The Chinese will celebrate the next year as the year of the horse, an auspicious year. Lao-Tzu had said: “A thousand mile journey begins with a single step,” and we must take the steps, and follow Madiba, as Nelson Mandela was known, on his long walk to freedom – for he reminded us: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

John Morrison is executive director of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), an international “think and do” tank with staff in Bogota, Brussels, Geneva, London, Nairobi and Yangon.