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The Ever-Evolving Definition of Human Rights

Wed, 07/27/2016

By Melanie Joe , Consultant – Research and Insights, MSLGROUP

The late Nelson Mandela famously said, “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” The idea that every person is free simply by the virtue of being born human seems straightforward enough, and yet, almost seven decades after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly, we continue to live in an age where adverse human rights violations are commonplace.

It might seem reasonable to say that individual freedoms are being violated because the core concept of human rights is yet to penetrate remote and regressive places in the world. But one can’t look away from the fact that thousands of people continue to be denied fair and just treatment even in ‘developed’ regions of the world. Where are we going wrong?

In an effort to compartmentalize each of our rights, have we overlooked what ‘human rights’ collectively means in a world that’s constantly evolving socially, culturally, and politically?

Definition of Human Rights Our world is evolving, and so are our human rights

With technology, the internet and social media, our shrinking ‘global village’ has become more local than ever. The
internet has become one of the most powerful platforms for the exchange of ideas, thoughts and opinions between
people. As people are exposed to the way of life and rights of their counterparts in other societies, they’re inevitably
going to expect the same for themselves. And, as we all adapt to today’s changing technologies and political
landscape, what we perceive as our rights also keep changing.

In these scenarios, the 30 rights officially recognized by the United Nations may not always be comprehensive
enough. These rights may have seemed exhaustive when they were drafted seven decades ago, but it is now time
to redefine what each of our rights really means today, and what they could mean in the future.

The shifting lens through which we view our human rights

Individual freedoms today are viewed in a much different light than they were until a few years ago. The same rights that have existed through the decades hold new meanings today, like some of them below:

  1. Freedom from discrimination can encompass everything from equal pay at the workplace, to the right to be served without prejudice from businesses. This was famously highlighted this year by the international outrage over a homosexual couple being denied service by a local baker in Oregon, USA.
  2. For digital users (not just Gen Z and Millennials, but all other generations), the right to digital privacy translates into the right to digital privacy and data protection. The AshleyMadison hack, for example, raised important questions – does moral vigilantism justify the public shaming of an individual’s personal choices? How can we protect people’s digital privacy from both hackers and by journalists and society?
  3. The right to freedom of expression for many millennials translates to the freedom to enjoy open dress codes, flexible working hours, and so on. This has launched a serious debate in society around how employees should behave and be treated. The recent NYTimes feature on tough work practices at Amazon (both in its factories and its corporate offices) received many strong reactions, as people argued about the importance of work-life balance, and the treatment of parents in the workplace. People are beginning to view a good work-life balance as an essential basic foundation for any job – and a basic human right.
  4. Areas of conflict often see some of the worst cases of human rights violations – the Syrian refugee crisis highlights this in tragic ways. Perhaps one of the most distressing things about the crisis was the refusal on the part of several countries to provide asylum to the refugees. Similarly, climate refugees who are displaced by the disastrous effects of climate change in places like the Kiribati Islands have started demanding compensation from the developed world. With good reason too, considering that developed nations have contributed more to climate change, with their consumption patterns and business practices. In both these cases, denial to entertain the victims’ requests becomes a direct violation of their right to seek a safe place to live .

Looking the other way is no longer an option . We’ve long known that war is exploitative of human rights. Today, we need to seriously consider climate change as a threat to human rights as well.

Societal evolution is bringing along an evolved set of concerns with it, and this flood has only just begun. The near future will also very likely see the debate around the impact of robots, artificial intelligence and machines on human rights, and that’s just scratching the surface.

The Road Ahead

There has been no better time than now, to discuss what it means to be a human being with rights. Technologically,
we’re at our most progressed state. Socially, we’re at a better place than we have ever been: more accepting,
inclusive and humane (although we do have a long way to go still). At this crossroads, it’s necessary to ask
ourselves some crucial questions:

How do we plan to equip ourselves to ensure a fair and just world for ourselves and our future generations? How do we do justice to the ‘right’ in human rights?

Definition of Human Rights 02 Here’s what I would like to see us do, as a society:

Recognize the flexible nature of human rights

Societal and technological evolution is only further going to push the boundaries of what we consider as our basic rights. For example, the internet has long ceased to be a luxury. Today, it’s a need that plays a vital role in the economic and social upliftment of people. It could therefore be fair to say that the right to education must also include the right to have access to the internet. Despite all the reservations surrounding it, Facebook’s Inetrnet.org is a significant step by the social network in meeting this rising human right.

Make human rights laws translate across borders

It should be our priority to ensure that our human rights legal framework takes into consideration the political, cultural, economical, even environmental differences between societies for fair application of our existing laws. In other words, while we look at modernising our human rights, we should also not ignore that countless people across the world lack basic human rights. In a world where practices like child marriage continue to thrive, we need to re-evaluate how international efforts can be more effective in preventing these violations at the grassroots level.

Give people a voice

States and other law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to listen to people’s needs, and this couldn’t be more relevant than in the case of human rights. Policymakers would do well to work with civilians to better understand their expectations and hopes surrounding their basic rights. For example, Finland crowdsourced its legislation from everyday people through Open Ministry. Using an inclusive, people-centric model like this to redefine our human rights where needed, will ensure that people have a say in the rights they enjoy as human beings.

Finally, we must wave goodbye to political associations that so strongly seem to influence the opinions and decisions of policy-makers when it comes to individual freedoms.

It’s interesting to note that in an age where we’re excited about self-driving cars and experiments to colonize other planets, we’re still ambiguous about basic rights like the freedoms of individuals to decide what to do with their bodies. It’s disconcerting that things that should be basic rights or at least individual choices – like abortion, maternity health plans, maternity and paternity leave– are still being debated in the political space in countries as advanced as the U.S.!

Similarly, the recent example of a man being lynched to death over the consumption of beef in India, and the lack of stringent action against it makes one wonder: why are individual freedoms still viewed through a political lens? Why are those in the position to tackle these issues still under pressure to conform to the opinions of their political parties/vote bank?

It’s time for the international community to reach an understanding on how we can place human rights above all other considerations We need to separate these from political, religious and cultural factors, and look at them for what they really are – the rights that each and every human being is entitled to. Only then can we move towards a world where we do justice to the concept of human rights.

This article is a part of MSLGROUP’s sustainability report A Chance for Change: The Tipping Point for Sustainable Business .

Melanie Joe_B&W
With a specialization in Advertising, Melanie has worked in the digital space with brands from the banking, healthcare, oil & energy, political and consumer sectors. She has also worked on media buying campaigns across print, radio, television and OOH. At MSLGROUP, she tracks inspiring digital initiatives for People’s Insights. Connect with her on twitter: @melanie_joe

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