The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy serves as the hub of the Harvard Kennedy School’s research, teaching, and training in the human rights domain. The center embraces a dual mission: to educate students and the next generation of leaders from around the world in human rights policy and practice; and to convene and provide policy-relevant knowledge to international organizations, governments, policymakers, and businesses.
Talking about “rights” is to talk about a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy, our system of law, our ethics, and—perhaps most deeply—our identity.
One of the rights we Americans customarily consider ours is “our right to religious freedom,” which, as enshrined in the First Amendment, is not one but two important correlate rights– our individual right to worship (or not) as we please, and our collective right (and duty) to prohibit any sort of government favoritism toward (or disfavoring of) any organized religion.
In his paper, author Richard Parker weaves the history and evolution of religious freedom into the context of human rights.
A well-informed citizenry is essential in a democracy to preserve American values and make sound decisions in every area, from the school board meeting to the voting booth. Yet, arguably, in no other way have Americans fallen so short from what the Framers intended than in their understanding of and participation in democratic governance. A 2019 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that only 39 percent of respondents could name all three branches of government, and 22 percent could not name any. Voting rates average only 56 percent in presidential elections, and are as low as 40 percent in mid-terms, ranking the U.S. far below most other democracies in voting participation. In short, the American people are not well-informed about their own government, do not turn out to vote in high numbers, and do not engage significantly in politics and civics.
In addition to providing a set of policy recommendations, this issue of the Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities paper series outlines historical origins of civic education, the status of state and federal requirement, the dearth of federal funding, and the current political tensions within civic education.
See all the issues of the Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities paper series here.
On the traditional view, human rights are universal because they belong to all human beings as such, solely in virtue of their humanity. In his paper, Blumenson explores the meaning of that claim and considers two reasons some people find it hard to accept. The first is the appeal of relativism. That appeal is all the greater now, when cultural diversity is more present than ever in one’s neighborhood, on television, and across the internet. It’s a short step from identifying differences in cultural values to identifying justice itself as culturally constructed. The second reason for doubt is also a response to the radically diverse ways of life in the world, but a simpler one: a belief that human rights universality is implausible. Even if there are moral universals, one might think them too few or too vague, and the settings of their operation too diverse, to generate anything as specific as human rights.
“The Carr Center is building a bridge between ideas on human rights and the practice on the ground. Right now we are at a critical juncture. The pace of technological change and the rise of authoritarian governments are both examples of serious challenges to the flourishing of individual rights. It’s crucial that Harvard and the Kennedy School continue to be a major influence in keeping human rights ideals alive. The Carr Center is a focal point for this important task.”
- Mathias Risse