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Rights are not static things. They don’t stay the same from generation to generation but evolve and change depending on changing norms and circumstances. In a sense, they adapt to history. This is an unpopular notion. Most human rights advocates understandably fear that, if long-fought-for rights are not grounded in the bedrock of such things as natural law or inherent human dignity, they may be subject to disregard or even repeal. As we will argue, rights represent a description of the good society, a society that protects and advances its members’ “lives, liberties, and pursuit of happiness.” If you already think you know what that good society looks like, naturally you resist changes to the rendering.
The problem is that some change in that description is inevitable. Human rights as we conceive them today are different from how they were conceived fifty, much less a hundred or more, years ago. While we may well hope that fundamental human rights, like the right to life or the right not to be tortured or the right to be free from slavery, will be as robust fifty years from now as they are today (and it is certainly incumbent upon us to fight hard to see that they are), the interpretation of other rights, like the right not to be subjected to war crimes, may need to be different. Still other rights that we can barely conceive of today, like an unlimited right to assisted suicide or of an animal to be regarded as a legal agent, may seem commonplace in years to come.
Carr Center Senior Fellow Bill Schulz and Executive Director Sushma Raman will lead this study group, workshopping chapters and research for their forthcoming book (to be published by Harvard University Press) which will address prospective changes to rights brought about by such developments as a non-binary understanding of gender; the development of robotic (autonomous) weaponry, the emergence of the notion that Nature itself, including rivers, may be rights-bearing entities, etc.
The study group will meet on four occasions this semester:
- Tuesday 3 October, 12:00 – 1:00pm Introduction and How and Why Rights Change (Carr Center Conference Room, Rubenstein-219, Harvard Kennedy School);
- Tuesday 17 October, 12:00 – 1:00pm Migration and Statelessness (Nye A, Taubman 5th floor, Harvard Kennedy School);
- Tuesday 14 November, 12:00 – 1:00pm Gender and Sexuality (Nye A, Taubman 5th floor, Harvard Kennedy School);
- Thursday 30 November, 12:00 – 1:00pm Privacy (Nye A, Taubman 5th floor, Harvard Kennedy School).