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Lighting a Fire for Human Rights

Lighting a Fire for Human Rights

When Jack Healey, founder and president of the Human Rights Action Center, came to UCLA on Nov. 5, his purpose was clear: to inspire undergraduates to dedicate themselves to the universal struggle for human rights, as he has done for nearly three decades.

Jack Healey: "Bother people a lot. They wont like you but it doesnt matter.

by Kathleen Micham for UCLA Today

“Education is the lighting of a fire … that’s what I want to do today,” Healey told an audience of nearly 200 undergraduates, as well as faculty and staff, at the UCLA School of Law. He spoke as a guest of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations.

Healey is probably best-known for his efforts on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi, the would-be leader of Myanmar and Nobel Peace Prize winner who, after winning that country’s 1990 election as leader of the National League for Democracy party, was put under house arrest — where she still remains — by the ruling junta.

Healey told his UCLA audience that he learned compassion for the suffering of the weak and poor as a result of his personal history: he was the son of a coal miner who died and left Healey’s mother with 11 children to care for. As a young adult, he became involved in the civil rights movement and was inspired by the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., from whom he said he learned that “…a man without power or money can move a whole nation…”

Healey became an activist in the priesthood but left to pursue a vigorous human rights agenda, working for several years at the Young World Development Program and the Center for Community Change. From 1977 to 1981, he served as the director of Peace Corps in Lesotho, a small country entirely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. He said he chose that assignment so that he could “see the apartheid monster face-to-face.”

In recent years, Healey has marshaled the power of celebrity in support of his causes. He told his UCLA audience how he succeeded in convincing Bono, U2 and Bruce Springsteen to leave lucrative concert tours to work for him. Recently, he asked artist Shepard Fairey — famous for his ubiquitous images of Barack Obama during the 2008 election campaign — to create a poster for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Reflecting the global scope of human rights, Healey’s lecture included discussions of “the disappeared” in Argentina — thousands of people who vanished during the 1976-1983 dictatorship in that country — as well as the post-election protesters in Iran and the Dalai Lama’s continuing struggles in Tibet. He urged students to become involved in issues like these.

“What you read in our papers today, please take it seriously,” Healey exhorted. “Your eyes should burn. Your ears should melt.”

He also spoke of the widespread use of rape as a form of political torture and urged women students in particular to come forward to defend their gender. “There is a river of consciousness in the world that is growing and you must be a part of it,” he said.

Despite the magnitude of human rights abuse worldwide, Healey said there is reason for optimism, notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the continuing courage of Suu Kyi, whom he called “…the leading symbol of hope in the world.”

In a question-and-answer session that followed, UCLA students asked Healey for advice on how they could make a difference in struggles around the world, including the fight for democracy in Myanmar, the war in Afghanistan and human trafficking.

In response, he urged, “Find a story…keep it simple…get involved with people on their level. Put it on YouTube.”

“Get out there,” he added. “Bother people. Bother people a lot. They won’t like you but it doesn’t matter.”

Click here to listen to audio from this event.    

To listen to an audio recording, please click above.