Reflection on Human Rights

Human rights are under threat around the world. In the modern era, when we have an increasing level of average health, prosperity and education worldwide, why are human rights still under-protected?


There is a tendency to see opportunity as a limited supply, rather than an equation where we can enlarge the pie of resources that we have to share. Once we begin to look at the scenario differently, we realize that everyone who has a basic level of guaranteed human rights has the potential to create a bigger pie, bigger resources for everyone else. We can begin to start to understand how we can move away from a zero-sum game of human rights towards a renaissance of meaningfully protecting human rights in the 21st century. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”


Earlier this month, we saw a shift in thinking towards recognizing the right to a clean environment as a human right. This right to a clean environment can be seen as a foundational right; without basic clean air and clean water, other, more sophisticated rights are less meaningful.


While Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a useful tool in providing an overview of prioritizing human needs, it can also be as a useful guide in prioritizing a hierarchy of human rights, not just theoretically but practically.


More than 150 million people worldwide are homeless, 5 million people are stateless, and more than 220 million are unemployed. This is despite the fact that Articles 13, 23 and 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantee some basic human rights surrounding employment, housing, and the right to return to one’s country.


How do we motivate countries to engage in an epistemological shift to a “grow the pie” perspective of investing in foundational human rights? An epistemological shift requires a reexamination of what motivates people and countries to value and invest in foundational human rights.


Once we begin to reconceptualize the complex factors that motivate humans and countries, we can begin to have more robust solutions to problems related to the human condition. We can begin to encourage all countries to guarantee foundational human rights in a practical way, not simply a theoretical way.


This new theoretical framework could be a start for how we can slowly move away from a zero-sum game concept towards a renaissance of meaningfully protecting human rights in the 21st century. 


The author of this article is James M Heller, Esq.  He teaches Human Rights & International Humanitarian Law for SUNY/ESC this spring.

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