How far have we come on human rights in the last 70 years?

Narrator: Seventy years ago, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hailed as a watershed
achievement in human history, its effects are everywhere. But what exactly is a human right? And where did we get the
idea that every person is entitled to the same
basic treatment and decency? Harvard Kennedy School
professor, Mathias Risse, says that one can trace
the origins of human rights as a concept to the ancient world. Prof. Risse: Once you
have cultures where people are thinking about morality, they’re thinking about what
should be done for people, they’re thinking about
how to treat each other, at some point they come to the realization that the people who live on
the other side of the river, on the other side of the mountain ridge, are really not that
different from themselves. Narrator: Human rights starts with
the idea of a universal morality. In the ancient world, the next step was the idea
of constraining power. That’s the notion that
even though people believe the power of a king or
emperor was divine in nature, that power wasn’t unlimited. Prof. Risse: There’s very
systematic efforts in Ancient India, there’s very systematic
efforts in pre-imperial China. So, the idea that power wasn’t just there to benefit those who happened to wield it and for society just to
dance around the tune, the idea that there needed
to be constrains on that is a very ancient one. Narrator: Prior to the
Universal Declaration, there are some examples of
other human rights documents. The text on an ancient ceramic cylinder, written by Persian king, Cyrus the Great, talks about freeing slaves and guaranteeing religious
freedom in conquered Mesopotamia. In recent years, the Cylinder of Cyrus has been held up as the first recorded
expression of human rights. Though this is a subject
of debate among historians. The Magna Carta, which constrained the rights
of the English Monarch in the 13th century, only applied if you happened
to be a feudal ward. In almost all early ideas
about protecting people from the excesses of power applied to groups not individuals. The notion that every individual person had natural rights didn’t
really gain traction until the Enlightenment and it continued with the American Declaration
of Independence and the French Declaration of the
Rights of Man and the Citizen. In the first half of the 20th century, the world plunged into global war twice. And once the smoke from
World War II cleared, people saw the horrors of the Holocaust and other atrocities as well as, the terrifying existential
threat of nuclear weapons. Prof. Risse: The victors of the
war wanted to continue and say we actually some global
institutions that make sure that calamities of the scale that the world had now seen twice, at the first and the second World War, that something like this
would not be repeated. So, there needed to be a certain degree of political and economic coordination and so the United Nations was founded. The idea was that this also
needed a moral vision of sorts. Which added to this overall
package of the United Nations. Narrator: It took three years for the UN to come up with a
preamble and 30 articles. Perhaps most importantly, they defined human
rights as rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex,
nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the
right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture. Freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and
education and many more. Prof. Sikkink: To this day, if you
read the Universal Declaration aloud, you say, “I wish. I wish we, in this country, enjoyed all the rights that are in the Universal Declaration.” So, there’s a big gap
still between the rights that are in the Universal
Declaration and in the treaties and the actual practice in the world. That gap leads many to say that, oh, see human rights haven’t worked because we’re still so far
from where we want to be. Narrator: So has the
Universal Declaration been a success or a failure? Professor Sikkink says
it laid the foundation for a lot of important
things that came next like the development of international law and treaties that solidified these rights. Prof. Sikkink: Treaties like
Convention Against Genocide, like the Convention Against Torture, Convention for the Rights of Women. Eventually the Conventions
for the Rights of Children or People with Disabilities. That’s important because
when you have a treaty, countries ratify it and they legally agree to be bound by it. Once you have that promise by countries to respect human rights, that gives tools to
people around the world who can try to pressure their governments and pressure other governments to live up to their legal commitments. Narrator: The success of
the Universal Declaration is also hard to judge because human rights are a moving target. Today’s definition of
discrimination is much broader than it was seventy years ago. At that time, it was mostly about race, religion, and ethnicity. Prof. Sikkink: Human rights has
the seeds for its own expansion. And so once you say no discrimination, then you realize, oh it can’t be only no
discrimination for XYZ but it’s okay to discriminate
against trans people. So, that’s one beauty of human rights. There’s a problem
associated with that beauty and that is that as we keep
expanding human rights, we are more convinced that
things are getting worse because we are what we’ve called raising the bar of accountability. Narrator: Safeguarding human rights also means looking to the future. Recent scandals with online
privacy and fake news, the rise of decision-making by algorithm and automation are just the few of the technological issues
humanity is facing in which could have a profound
impact on human rights. Prof. Risse: Yeah, the
truth is as technology is changing our lives it is
also affecting the realizability of every single right on
the Universal Declaration. We are turning over
decision making to machines and we are using automatic
decision making for example, in the judicial system, where decisions about paroles are made at the advise of algorithms. We are developing weapon technologies that have brought fully
automated weapons systems, artificially intelligent weapon systems. Narrator: Whether we’re looking
forward to a utopia or a dystopia, may well depend on how well
the principles articulated in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights are baked into tomorrows designs. We have to work very hard
for making that happen and also make sure that
technological know-how is spread that everybody is included. A class out of global
collaboration to make sure that there are not just some
minor trickle down effects but that the benefits of
technology are brought and shared. Narrator: But shared by who? And in the not too distant future, we may even be asking, shared by what? Prof. Risse: We might look
at a future that is populated by intelligent players that
are dramatically different from us and then with a range
of intermediate creatures like cyborgs who are
technologically enhanced, organic creatures. And so we’re looking at
a future where entities, creatures of sorts, will demand a share in power, a share in participation, a kind of protection
and enduring existence the way humans have so far. So, this is very much also on my mind and the call centers radar because these are not
questions you want to ask for the first time systematically, once such entities are actually upon us. Narrator: This video is a
co-production of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs and the Carr Center
for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

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