The Carr Center Observes Human Rights Day

December 10, 2020
Human Rights Day

In honor of Human Rights Day, 10 Carr Center faculty and fellows share their reflections on how human rights can guide the way forward.

Human Rights Day is observed every year on December 10th—the day on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year, it comes at a time of great uncertainty in the world. Besieged by an unprecedented global health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, communities and societies worldwide are experiencing severe economic and social impacts. With the rise of authoritarian regimes, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and wealth inequality, human rights are under attack, prompting important questions about what the human rights movement means, what it has accomplished, and what it must set its sights on now. In honor of Human Rights Day, 10 Carr Center faculty and fellows have penned short essays reflecting on the future of human rights and how far they still have to go.


Jump to:
Mathias Risse: The struggle to make rights secure continues.
Erica Chenoweth: The fundamental rights of assembly and expression require urgent attention.
Sushma Raman: Focusing on strengthening rights in a digital age can help us ensure that each person can fully flourish.
Keisha Blain: Fannie Lou Hamer provides a model for how we should approach human rights.
Rachel Lopez: Human rights have been too skewed toward the individual.
Kate Gilmore: More digitally savvy, better connected, and intellectually agile, our children hold the key.
Vivek Krishnamurthy: we need to make human rights matter more to those who need them most.
Timothy Patrick McCarthy: The future of human rights is always uncertain, precisely because human rights are still aspirational.
John Shattuck: Without mutual respect for rights, there can be no democracy.
Binalakshmi Nepram: We need to return to the values enshrined in the UDHR.

Mathias RisseMathias Risse

Faculty Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy


As we approach Human Rights Day 2020, we bring to a close a year that weighs heavily on many of us. The pandemic has already taken about 1.5 million lives globally, about a quarter of them in the United States. And here, an eerie parallel keeps coming back to me, namely, that “about a quarter” is also the U.S. share in the global prison population. That it’s a quarter both times, in a way, is a peculiar coincidence. Still, both matters make painfully clear that the astounding amount of wealth and knowledge that the US possesses is not deployed to look after its own people. More specifically, it is not used to look after its most vulnerable.


The protests against police violence following the death of George Floyd and others have marshaled an enormous amount of support for much-needed change, not only in policing but also in the way the country views and handles the history and current reality of its race relations. But it is also fair to interpret the results of the presidential election as showing that a rather large share of Americans is unwilling to engage with these matters. And then, day by day, we find ourselves in an increasingly surreal political environment. State after state certifies the election results, those under Democratic leadership as much as those under Republican leadership. State by state, election law provides for careful oversight in the processing of election results, and the courts provide remedies for anybody who suspects wrongdoing. The outgoing president refuses to accept a sound defeat in which more than 7 million more voters opted against him than for him. He does so by spreading blatant lies that every single time his people brought them to a court were found deprived of evidence. And yet he finds sufficiently many people who are willing to bend their souls to echo his falsehoods, seemingly for no other reason than to hang on to power or influence. Sufficiently many to throw a shadow of illegitimacy over the incoming presidency in the minds of many. "There must be something to this,” many will think.


The president and his enablers not only accuse opponents of doing precisely what they (president and enablers) are doing themselves; they do so with an aura of ostensibly genuine and apparently contagious moral indignation, even outrage, at being so treated, and they add layers of sophistication to their charges, to the effect, that it is really those opponents who accuse them (president and enablers) of doing precisely what they (opponents) are actually doing. In a time of limited attention spans, we are thereby operating in an environment where political discourse just drowns in noise. Genuine debate rarely happens: questions are ignored, personal attacks dominate. The politics of discreditation is all around us. What does this all have to do with human rights? Everything. More than 70 years after the passing of the Universal Declaration the year 2020 teaches us that even in wealthy countries with deep capacities in all domains, the basic protection of economic and political agency is not secure. The struggle to make them so continues.




Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs
One of the human rights requiring urgent attention is the right to peaceably assemble. Many countries have used the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to impose tight restrictions on the size of public gatherings outdoors. This is true in places like Hong Kong, Israel, Thailand, India, Iran, and other countries that have been facing sustained mass movements in recent years. But even before the pandemic, this right was already systematically under attack in the age of digital authoritarianism. Across the world—from Hong Kong to Russia to Venezuela to the United States—dissidents who organize and use nonviolent methods are accused of treason, terrorism, and sedition. In the United States alone, freedom of assembly has been under attack for at least the past four years. Since 2016, 25 U.S. states have enacted legislation restricting rights to peaceful assembly, with over a hundred other bills introduced to do so. In U.S. states like Tennessee and North Carolina, state legislatures have passed or tried to pass legislation classifying nonviolent actions like road blockades in a similar category as domestic terrorism. In Florida, the governor has introduced legislation removing liability for drivers who strike people who are protesting in the streets. In West Virginia, a law was passed to remove liability for police who kill people in the process of dispersing “riots,” which the state problematically defines in a way that could include peaceful protest. And many U.S. states have passed laws imposing stiffer penalties for protesting near critical infrastructure or oil wells. In many instances, these laws are responding to and have disproportionate effects on Black, indigenous, and immigrant populations who are protesting against racism and police brutality, land seizures or environmental degradation, deportation, and environmental injustice.
It can be useful to remember that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an aspirational document that was forged out of the bitter experience of what happens within and between societies when basic human rights are disrespected or arbitrarily ignored. We should always defend these fundamental rights of assembly and expression. Even though they are fundamental, they are not yet secure. Every generation must do its part to renew and protect these rights. So moving ahead, I hope that we will see an urgent push from global civil society groups to encourage states and international institutions restore and protect the sacred right of people to peaceably assemble. This will involve pressure to remove bans on public or private gatherings, particularly once it is safe for people to physically gather following the widespread distribution of the coronavirus vaccine. It will also require dismantling problematic laws that allow or encourage violence against people exercising their rights of assembly; the protection of nonviolent dissent in all of its forms; and clemency and pardons for those serving sentences for convictions related to these restrictions.
Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Bill Schulz and I describe in our book, The Coming Good Society: Why New Realities Demand New Rights, the changing rights landscape and what rights could look like in the future. We need to think of current rights in new ways and even might need to conceptualize new rights, in part due to scientific and technological advancements.
This might seem controversial to some – after all, if we haven’t tackled age-old human rights challenges such as genocide or trafficking, should we turn our focus to new ones? And if rights can change and are not rooted in something eternal, can’t they be susceptible to the whims of the world’s authoritarians?
Focusing on strengthening rights in a digital age can help us ensure that each person can fully flourish, and that we can realize our capabilities. Take the right to privacy, for example. While we might be tempted to view this as far less important than say, the right not to be tortured or executed extrajudicially, the reality is that surveillance of journalists and environmental defenders by repressive governments is often the first step in arresting, detaining, or even murdering individuals and is part of broader democratic backsliding occurring around the world.
Movements for racial justice are embracing the power and challenging the perils of technology, by promoting the phenomenon of “Black witnessing” as described by Dr. Alissa Richardson to capture instances of police violence and the First Amendment “right to record,” while simultaneously tackling racial bias in algorithms used in predictive policing and sentencing.
Human rights can guide our way forward, both to proactively address harms and to ensure that the benefits of technological progress are accessible to all.
Carr Center Fellow
My research on activist Fannie Lou Hamer has inspired my thinking on human rights. A passionate advocate for justice, Hamer proudly declared her dedication to human rights as an extension of her work in the civil rights movement. “I am not just fighting for myself and for the Black race,” she once explained. “But I am fighting for the Indians; I’m fighting for the Mexicans; I’m fighting for the Chinese; I’m fighting for anybody because as long as they are human beings, they need freedom.” Hamer passionately advocated for the rights and freedom of marginalized groups and used the few resources she had to improve the social conditions of those who were in need, regardless of their race. Hamer’s Freedom Farm—made possible through a nationwide fundraising campaign—provided food, housing, and employment for hundreds of families in the Mississippi Delta. Even more instructive from Hamer’s life is that she allowed her anger at injustice to guide her. She was, therefore, unafraid to publicly condemn those who perpetuated injustice. Hamer committed herself to ensuring the political and economic security of all, and did not shy away from acknowledging societal ills and demanding more from public officials. Hamer’s passionate resolve to improve society and willingness to use whatever resources were at her disposal to help others provide a model for how we should approach human rights.
Carr Center Fellow
In a world where the most critical issues of our time, like climate change, the refugee crisis, and the global pandemic, are inherently transnational and cross borders, a well-developed human rights regime is essential. Particularly in an era also characterized by the renewed prominence of authoritarian leaders, human rights law helps to ensure that solutions to these global challenges center human dignity, equality, and non-discrimination, rather than brute state power.
Yet, in order for human rights to fulfill their intrinsic promise, a recalibration is sorely needed. Human rights have been too skewed toward the individual, at great cost to our collective well-being and intertwined humanity. The global issues we encounter today reaffirm how deeply connected our health and safety are and should prompt a deeper engagement with and understanding of how our individual human rights correspond to collective duties to our fellow human beings. Taking this communal lens, we may also realize that in order to ensure our mutual well-being, these duties are not only owed to each other, but also to our planet and other species that inhabit it as well as in our use of technology and science. In essence, just as humans evolve, so must the rights meant to protect us.
Carr Center Fellow
Yes. The menu of human rights challenges, today’s and tomorrow’s, is as long as it is complex. Existential—pandemic, climate crisis, digitally-manipulated hatred, extreme inequality—but epistemic too. The less prepared we are for the future we have caused, and the more inevitable massive change is, the tougher the contests are becoming. Nativist-populist leaders and gurus of sectarian movements, including those of white supremacist networks and evangelically disguised ones, lock not on to solutions for our common humanity but on to self-interest entrenchments of racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homo and transphobic and even greed-based “us versus them” stratifications. Masquerading as local answers and national solutions, they seed toxic conflicts over values for our common, or
uncommon, humanity instead.
But our children hold the key. More digitally savvy, better connected, and intellectually agile, youth today is a competency, not merely an identity. The largest-ever generation under 25 is our most precious resource, and yet, today, not only un-mined, but they are also undermined. Their rights to sexual and reproductive health and dignity are derided, even though it is exactly by those dignities that their human development path must be paved. Their right to quality education side-lined in public budgets and eroded on spurious ideological grounds. Their right to active participation in public decision making ridiculed when not dismissed. The world’s parliaments’ average age—53 in 2015—flags the problem.
Pivot points for a future founded on the bedrock of human rights are not unfamiliar: accountability, non-discrimination, participation, fairness, factualness, justice, redress. But human rights-based succession planning to accelerate young people’s access to the tables of decision-making? That all too novel action must become commonplace.
Carr Center Fellow
Human rights should guide our way forward as a society, as they embody our most fundamental commitments to each other. Whether they actually will is a different story, however. Not only are rights protections under attack today as they have never been before, but there is growing skepticism in many quarters as to the legitimacy and utility of human rights.
To counter this, we need to make human rights matter more to those who need them most. We need to do a better job of bringing rights violations to public view, and create better mechanisms to enforce rights claims against those who violate them (be they public or private entities).
Sushma Raman and William Schulz have powerfully argued as to why new realities demand new rights, but we must also engage in the important work of renewing existing rights in the face of changing circumstances. If they are to remain vital and relevant, old interpretations of certain foundational rights may need to yield to people's needs in a society that has been utterly transformed not just by technology, but what is likely to be the long-term ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on our political, economic, social, and cultural life.
Lecturer on Education and Public Policy
The future of human rights is always uncertain, precisely because human rights are still aspirational. As a historian of politics and social movements, I have always been mystified by those who view human rights—and human wrongs—as somehow beyond the borders of the United States. This is why I was so honored to be part of the Carr Center’s unprecedented Reimagining Human Rights and Responsibilities project, which I hope will compel this country to take a long-overdue look in the mirror. Americans are familiar with three tired refrains. First, “America is a beacon of freedom for the world.” Second, “American is the wealthiest nation on earth.” And third, “This isn’t who we are.” If the first refrain was true, and the second was an honest expression of generosity or justice, the third would be unnecessary. In other words, if our audacious claims to freedom were consistent, the President would not tear gas peaceful protesters and attack the press and rule of law, police officers would not routinely target and murder Black citizens, ICE agents would not encage children and deport their parents, and judges would not deny women reproductive justice and pit the First and Fourteenth Amendments against each other to deny queer people equality. If our wealth were distributed fairly—especially in the midst of a terrifying and ongoing global pandemic—we would have no people who are hungry and homeless and without health care. And when our “leaders” say “this isn’t who we are,” I say: “Methinks you doth protest too much.” Indeed, this is who we are: a country founded on the violent contradictions of slavery and settlement, where human rights have been elevated, and human wrongs have been erased relentlessly throughout our history, even before the birth of the nation itself. My hope for the future is that we have the reckoning we desperately need to reconcile all of this if we possibly can—in other words, to finally make real the aspirations we’ve never had the consistency or courage to actually become.
Senior Fellow
“I can’t breathe.” The last words George Floyd spoke as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25, 2020, became emblematic, inspiring months of mass protest across the United States and around the world. The killing of George Floyd cast a spotlight on the impact of racism and reignited a movement for racial justice. The outpouring of public anger by millions of people of all races, generations, and socioeconomic backgrounds in the midst of a pandemic demonstrated the new urgency of protecting core human rights values.
Demands for rights come in many forms. As demonstrations against racism have taken place, some other Americans have rebelled against emergency rules that they wear masks in public to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, claiming that their individual freedom is being curtailed. But one person’s claim of freedom can deny the rights of others. Can a right not to wear a mask during a pandemic override the responsibility to respect others' rights to health and safety?
Human rights are entitlements that define the relationship of people to each other and to government. Citizens of democratic nations that are built on racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity are bound together not by common ancestry and blood ties but by the values of liberty and equality that underlie human rights. Without mutual respect for rights, there can be no democracy, only factions competing for dominance and groups struggling for survival.
Carr Center Fellow
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights established in 1948 recognizes the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. However, in our villages and towns in Manipur State in Northeast India, where I was born and grew up in and where my family lives, home to 45 million indigenous communities, I have seen the suppression of our human rights every single day since I was born. In a democracy like India, how can one justify the existence of a martial law called Armed Forces Special Powers Act clamped on indigenous peoples in Manipur and Northeast India since 1958? How can one justify the sexual violence and extra-judicial execution of many indigenous young people? I have been asking these questions for a long time and feel that a return to the values of human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafted seventy-two years ago, the principles of equality as enshrined in various constitutions worldwide and various resolutions taken by member states are the keys to re-establishing a world where all human beings are treated equally and with dignity.
Human rights values challenge patriarchy, militarization, racism, gender-based violence and colonialism that are needed to be rooted out in today’s world. Thus, human rights for me, in the future, is a world where there is 10 percent reduction in the 1.3 trillion US dollars military spending, a world where nations create Ministries of Peace, not War, spend the taxpayers' money wisely in people’s genuine welfare, a world where nations spend less on the military industrial complex and invest more in health, education, gender, and climate justice. A world where people are put before profits, peace before greed, love before hate, peace before war, non-violence before violence.