The concept of human rights is deeply rooted in our evolution as a social being. It is a universalisation of the belief that a member of a community should be treated consistently and fairly, rather than according to the dictates of power. Its fullest expression is that regardless of someone's class, location, gender, age, beliefs, race, identity or even actions, they are entitled to an equal level of dignity. Progress on human rights is a collective responsibility that extends more fully the global community. It is both one of the great tasks of humanity and one of the primary ways our collective progress should be judged.
Though the arc of history appears to tend towards less violence, poverty and repression, this progress is uneven and perhaps ever incomplete. There has never been a time in history when oppression was absent from the world, nor may there ever be. The threat or use of pain will always be a tool with which people can control others, whether this is violence towards or between states, communities, groups, or individuals. Order and freedom within will perhaps always live in contention with each other. It is unlikely we can end the ability for people to do bad things to each other without unreasonably restricting individual freedom. Violence and suffering are part of the moral texture of our world, therefore living ethically requires contending with them.
To those who suffer one of the primary sources of hope is to inspire empathy and action in others, especially those living more comfortable lives. This creates a quandary, as lives less touched by suffering tend to be less urgently conscious of suffering’s presence in the world. To ask relatively privileged people to give more consideration to the suffering of others is asking them to do something emotionally unpleasant. This goes against their self-interest except in fairly abstract terms. Empathy is not always easy to inspire in others either, it is difficult for most materially comfortable people to conceive of having the rights they enjoy taken away when they mostly live in stable, relatively just political systems. Therefore it is not by fear or self-interest that we should hope to encourage people to act for the human rights of others but their compassion and sense of justice. The best guarantees of consistent action towards upholding human rights are to ensure people are aware of what goes on in the world, and that embedded within all cultures is a moral obligation to support universal, inalienable human rights.
Like many issues facing our world, human rights are complex and we must rise to this complexity. If we wish to do good, the foundation is the ongoing education and re-education of ourselves and others about the world beyond our daily lives. An essential part of this is to resist the distractions of media funded by governments and corporations that often operate as tools for the status quo. Our moral guide cannot be entities trying to draw our focus towards consumerism, sensationalism, entertainment, localism, gossip, political posturing or nationalism. We should ensure we regularly engage with and support media and organisations that focus on educating people about world issues, especially those happening in the poorest and most disadvantaged parts of the world. Sometimes it takes an effort of will to break out of an intellectual bubble but there are many things about which it is too important to say we weren’t aware, especially when attention is partly a conscious choice.
Reliant on, but beyond educating ourselves are many positive actions we can take to support human rights progress. We can all be consistent advocates for human rights in our social circles and political communities. When we consume, bank or invest, we can ensure we aren’t supporting militaries, poor working conditions, environmental destruction, dictatorships and corporations preying on the poor and disadvantaged. We should join our voices in movements putting pressure on systems of power to further human rights, both within nations and internationally. Part of this is supporting however we are able charities, independent media, non-governmental organisations and others working to alleviate and reduce human rights violations locally and globally. Many of these organisations do work that is vital to both short and long-term human rights progress; public education, research, alleviation of and resolution of conflict, documentation and investigation, psychological support and healing, medical care, increasing local skills, infrastructure and resilience. We should support these organisations with our attention, time, money, voice, skills, personal resources or whatever is within our power.
The political struggle of embodying human rights in our national and international governance organisations is vitally important. We generally have the most power in those countries of which we are citizens. We should be aware of our national government’s positions with respect to human rights in other countries as they may not align with our ethics. We should have a broad understanding of what aid our governments give and what it is used for. Studies in wealthy countries show people significantly overestimate the amount of aid their countries give; US citizens consistently think their country donates 25% of their national income to foreign aid in years where the actual figure is less than 1%. Countries that technically give substantial aid often use it in ways that don’t help target communities long term, such as by dumping excess food that destabilises local producers and markets, contracting their own corporations to build mega-projects that primarily enrich elites in both countries or using aid primarily as a tool of political manipulation rather than being needs-based.
We must also look at the financial structures which wield such power in our world. Human rights are too important to leave up to the vagaries and changing fortunes of markets, political fashions or personal financial conditions. Government aid, individual donations, free markets and wealthy philanthropy all make a positive difference, however, they are inconsistent. Commitments of the ultra-wealthy to give away much of their wealth are welcome, but for every example of the ultra-wealthy giving money to worthy causes, there are more cases of them funding garish lifestyles or manipulating political systems for their own benefit. There needs to be a democratic global structure to underpin material well-being and security, including minimising corruption and political disenfranchisement. Part of this programme should be a conversation about acceptable levels of equality among people, and this must include things like increasing taxation and redistribution even though this is politically difficult. Wealth and inequality may not be inherently immoral, but they become immoral when they mean gluttony for some and starvation for others. Property rights are important, but the right to profligate consumerism cannot override another’s right to basic dignity. Many financial agreements need international cooperation so that wealth can not simply be moved from country to country to avoid social obligations. Corporations naturally seek places with low wages, disempowered workforces and minimal regulation. If we try to regulate things like working conditions and environmental concerns within our own country and don’t include the same considerations on the goods we import, we end up moving the negative consequences to other countries and putting our own economies at a disadvantage. Countries should be able to restrict or put tariffs on trade for human rights and environmental purposes, yet currently international agreements prohibit this and allow corporations to sue governments who try to legislate pro-social concerns. To be overly optimistic or prescriptive about frameworks for international coordination would be unwise, but a movement that draws its authority from the universal democratic will of the people is the only basis for legitimate global governance.
Climate change and many other environmental problems exacerbate inequality and human rights issues because they disproportionately affect the poor and poorer regions of the world. Our goal must be to find economic equality within the environmental carrying capacity of the Earth. Perpetual material growth is a recipe for environmental destruction, but given that the ballooning wealth in many countries since the middle of the 20th century has failed to increase levels of happiness, maybe this opportunity to rethink well-being and happiness beyond surrounding ourselves with ever more inanimate goods is a gift. Wealthy countries are currently modelling a vision of the good life which is environmentally and emotionally bankrupt. In moving their driving ethos from status-seeking consumerism to social connection, environmental beauty, healthy living and intellectual flourishing, wealthy societies can not only live better lives but also fulfil their responsibility of providing better example for the developing world to follow.
There is a long history of the discussion of universal human rights so the good news is that we do not need to start from nothing. Embodying much historical thought is an internationally agreed-upon document that sets out a basis for protecting human rights. A beacon of human progress, ratified by all members of the United Nations, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By virtue of this document, all the world's people have human rights which should be theoretically legally enforceable. This agreement our countries entered into when signing the declaration should bind them to act according to its principles. Many signatory nations however have never seriously considered even partially implementing the declaration. We need formal, internationally agreed-upon structures to progress and compel implementation of the articles contained within the declaration. Moral, economic and political force should be brought to bear on ruling elites who fail to act on behalf of all of their constituent communities.
As individuals, while we must encourage political action, we cannot and should not wait for it to act. Personal action not only alleviates current suffering but also provides a supportive foundation for wider systemic change. While many political human rights require fundamental changes to the governing classes and structures of societies, many more pragmatic human rights concerns are more imminently solvable. Collective individual action can do much to buttress the political and material basis for human dignity, and ultimately flourishing. It is also possible that systemic change can only occur when a tipping point of individual action and example is reached.
Humanity has possessed for some time the resources and technical ability to extend a level of material dignity and security to all people. The reasons we have not done so are legion but include elite selfishness and corruption, a redirection of excess resources to material affluence and status-seeking, and our circles of compassion being limited to those who share our various identities, especially nationality. Progress and growth, especially following the industrial and green revolutions, has seen a historically unprecedented upliftment of people from absolute poverty. Once a basic level of material affluence is achieved however it does not appear to provide significant further happiness and flourishing. In capitalism’s poster child, the United States, average wealth more than doubled during the latter twentieth century, yet levels of happiness remained static. This is at least partly because we are an evolutionary creature that has mistaken ourselves for a capitalistic one. With the living systems of the world in decline, to continue to try to resolve our existential angst with material affluence is not only destructive but probably counter-productive. Consumption beyond a reasonable level fails to make us happy yet we continue trying to cure our inner problems with more consumption, and thus we perpetuate an empty cycle that is laying waste to the natural world. We are beings of emotion and connection, our happiness is bound up largely in each other, yet we have increasingly become isolated atoms of consumption. It is no surprise that surrounding ourselves with unnecessary inanimate things does little for our well-being, yet this is the errant path the wealthy embody for the developing world. Individuals and communities with the freedom and resources to do so bear a responsibility to provide an example of a socially, economically and ecologically conscious path. It is not only for the wider world, but for their own happiness that they should do this.
While acknowledging the substantial global material progress that has alleviated poverty in recent decades, progress remains inconsistent and structurally unstable. Where the market can make a profit, material well-being has increased, often substantially. In less profitable parts of the world however absolute numbers of people in poverty have remained static or increased. Many societies which have progressed economically have not progressed politically. Markets are powerful but precarious, there is no guarantee as to when and if markets will bring significant progress to the many millions of people still living in absolute poverty. History shows us that when there are disruptions in economic markets, millions of people can be thrown back into absolute poverty. Market logic is not an omniscient or benevolent power, it is an amoral process that follows mathematical laws, we cannot throw the poor and disadvantaged to its mercy.
While not an exhaustive list, Human Rights Watch lists the following areas of high-level human rights concerns:
- Children's Rights
- Crisis and Conflict
- Disability Rights
- Economic Justice and Rights
- Free Speech
- LGBT Rights
- Refugees and Migrants
- Rights of Older People
- International Justice
- Technology and Rights
- Terrorism / Counterterrorism
- Women's Rights
While progress in many of these areas has shown marked improvement in many countries, particularly those with functioning democracies and union movements, it is often a matter of degree. There are also unique concerns in different countries, some continue to deal with the legacy of colonialism, continued occupation or disproportionately disadvantaged subpopulations such as indigenous. Wealthy democracies may have legally enforceable human rights for their own citizens, but give financial, military and political support to corrupt and oppressive regimes. In some areas, women’s primary struggles might be structural inequality and protection from intimate partner violence whereas in others it might include those concerns but also the right to work, have reproductive freedom, be educated or travel without a male guardian. While we should focus on the worst, most widespread and tractable human rights concerns, progress across all of these areas is vitally important. History also shows us that we rarely have to make trade-offs and that rights progress in concert with each other, rarely at the expense of each other.
Universal human rights are one of the great urgent tasks of humanity. Major progression towards this goal has happened in our lifetime through the combined struggle and efforts of millions. Significant further progress is still necessary before we can begin to console ourselves with the idea of living in a just world. Whilst so much preventable suffering and injustice goes on in our world, a person cannot passively stand by and claim neutrality. For those of us with relative freedom or material well-being, the responsibility to act is the heaviest. Morality is about what we do but also about what we fail to do. The poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden and all those who care about the upliftment of the human spirit, have awaited a fairer world for too long.
Human rights embraces the meaning of our lives. For many of us, the extent of our own well-being will be limited until we can make significant progress towards universal human rights. When we ponder the world, ourselves and our place amid existence, how we feel is bound up in the lives and experiences of others. Human rights focus on the victims of injustice, but feeling we live in a just world and the flourishing enabled by such a world, is something we will all share the benefits of.
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
- John Donne