Thinking critically about human rights

Are human rights truly universal? Who can claim human rights?
What are some lesser known origin stories of contemporary human rights?

How inclusive are human rights? It seems like an absurd question to ask since human rights, by definition, are supposed to be "universal." Digging deeper into the purely conceptual origins of rights reveals that their early proponents were hardly egalitarian.  In fact, there is a strong case for arguing that the human rights we speak of today are hardly the same as  past conceptions of  Eurocentric and "Western Human Rights" because once colonized peoples started claiming rights and challenging the hypocrisy of their oppressors ( see examples here, here and here), human rights were radically transformed.

Here are some resources for reflection along with some guide questions:

Reflection Questions:

  • Are human rights truly universal?
  • Who can claim human rights?
  • What are some lesser-known origin stories of contemporary human rights?

Nicole Hannah Jones

This YT video features Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times and creator of The 1619 Project Podcast . In the video, Hannah-Jones speaks about the inconsistencies of the key narratives about where universal Human Rights comes from.

Prompt Questions for Reflection:

Who do these rights then apply to when we talk/think about them?

Were human rights always universal or did our conception or understanding of them change over time encompass the whole of humanity?

How might the claims or assumptions we make about human rights and its origins end up exclusionary? 

When looking at Canada’s constitution, did we consider everyone in our own charter? How might Canada’s own practice and polices on human rights reflect elements of the same inequalities as in the United States?  

This UN video features the women Eleanor Roosevelt relied on to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If not for these women, the principle of gender equality would not have been included in the document. For example, it was Hansa Mehta, a delegate from India, who successfully changed the wording of the text from "All Men" to "All human beings are born free and equal..."

Prof. Samuel Moyn's lecture featuring a guest, Prof. Justin Hansford

Entitled, "Is Black Lives Matter a Human Rights movement?” The talk (dated 2017) is part of a series of talks that 1L students are Harvard attend and it’s called the Diversity and Social Justice Series.

Prompt Questions for Reflection:

What is the human rights origin story you are the most familiar with?

How has it shaped your notions of what human rights are and who they belong to?

How does knowing about the connections mentioned in the video (the American civil rights leader, Malcolm X’s strategic advice to newly formed African states to use IHR) challenge some of our assumptions about how human rights came to be recognized as universal?