October 17 , 2005
Our common heritage
Dabney Evans is executive director of the Institute of Human Rights and a lecturer in the Rollins School of Public Health.
On Wednesday of this week, Emory will witness its third Classroom on the Quad. In what is now an annual event, faculty from across the University will gather with students on our physical common ground, the Quadrangle, to seek philosophical common ground on some of the most contentious issues of our time.
Begun in 2003 as a response to the polarization of student groups over the impending war in Iraq, Classroom on the Quad encourages the expression of a wide range of perspectives, academic freedom and respect for personal differences. I hope this year’s theme of human rights will highlight more commonalities than differences; after all, few among us would openly stand against human rights. But the devil is in the details.
When we begin discussing whose rights, which rights, and how we perceive or claim those rights, differences of opinion emerge.
Whenever I begin teaching on this topic, one of my first questions is always: What are human rights? Students shout out answers like “freedom of speech,” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As Americans, we are extremely aware of our rights. We pound our chests and claim our rights when they are being violated. But sometimes we fail to recognize the sources of these rights.
At times, our rights come from domestic sources of law such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or other federal law. Other times our rights may be grounded in international human rights law. On topics such as civil and political rights, international law and domestic law often are in harmony, but other types of rights (economic, social, cultural) are not emphasized in the same ways in the United States for historical reasons, such as the Cold War.
Modern concepts of human rights began with the emergence of nation states, the establishment of state sovereignty and John Locke’s characterization of natural rights. Locke proposed that the rights to life, liberty and estate or property were God-given.
However, Locke’s rights were limited to male, Christian land owners. The concept of rights further evolved with the Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the U.S. Bill of Rights, which were mostly composed of civil and political rights. The early 20th century saw the creation of the Mexican and Soviet constitutions, which introduced social and economic rights into state structures.
Looking at this brief history, we can see that the concept of rights is an evolving one. Loosely defined, our contemporary understanding of human rights is that they are a set of beliefs about the societal basis of human well-being that describes the relationships between individuals and society, and what people need to maintain their human dignity.
At the international level, the legal framework for human rights is based in the United Nations (U.N.) system. In fact, the preamble to the U.N. charter makes reference to the “dignity” and the “equal and unalienable rights of all members of the human family” as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. The charter goes on to identify the promotion and respect of human rights as being one of the purposes of the international body.
The U.N. was founded on the heels of one of the most horrible atrocities known to mankind, the Holocaust, by a world community catalyzed (even traumatized) to action. On Dec. 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted by a committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the declaration outlined the basic human rights and fundamental freedoms belonging to all human beings. Two additional treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, further detail and legally bind state parties to respect, protect and fulfill these rights.
Oct. 24 will mark the U.N.’s 60th anniversary, and in the time since its founding, great strides have been made in regard to human rights. The international community has ratified treaties outlawing genocide, torture, racial discrimination, discrimination against women, and calling for the protection of refugees and the rights of children.
Yet we know that genocide is occurring in Sudan, and that abuse of prisoners has occurred in Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantanamo Bay. We know human rights abuses do not just occur “out there,” as witnessed by the stories of African Americans who allegedly were prevented on the basis of their skin color from crossing a bridge in Gretna, La., in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The fact that these atrocities and many others still take place highlights several weaknesses in the existing human rights regime. In terms of their language, human rights treaties are framed as both ideals and benchmarks. Because some rights are resource dependent, it may not be possible for states to fulfill all rights immediately. This principle, known as progressive realization, allows for the gradual improvement of human rights over time, but on the negative side, it can allow states to fail to prioritize certain rights or certain types of rights. We may also see retrogressive measures that may chip away at established rights, such as the invasions of privacy and abuses of civil liberties resulting from the USA PATRIOT Act and guidelines justifying maltreatment of detainees authored by now-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
In times of crisis, we often see politicians contracting rights and civil liberties in the name of security, when instead we should be calling for their expansion. Just as we have seen natural rights belonging to Christian, property-owning men expand to the universal, interdependent and unalienable concept of rights we have now, so too must we work toward an ever-expanding concept of rights on the basis of the weaknesses in our existing understanding.
This evolution of human rights is not at odds with the values we hear often in politicians’ speeches. They widely cite “freedom,” along with principles of equality, non-discrimination, representation, participation and dignity as some of the core values of culture and society.
But we must also challenge the existing system to respect the rights of others outside our Western value structure. We must promote the expansion of the different types of rights we value to include economic, social and cultural rights. And we must call upon civil actors, such as multinational corporations, to be held accountable to standards of human rights.
It is my hope that, as we meet on the Quad later this week, we can begin to discuss the ways in which human rights may be expanded as a tool for negotiating our differences. Classroom on the Quad will serve as an opportunity for us to fulfill the vision outlined by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, who said: “Human rights are our common heritage, and their realization depends on the contributions that each and every one of us is willing to make, individually and collectively, now and in the future.”