Bridge of Harbin Songhua river, illuminated at night

The Age of Human Rights?

The Institute for Human Rights at UAB is proud to take part in the annual Human Rights Day today, December 10th.  Today, the United Nations led the global celebration honoring the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its subsequent influence on global affairs.  This is the last post in our series on Human Rights Day, exploring possible next steps to protect, maintain, and expand human rights across the globe.

Looking Ahead: Third Generation Rights & Beyond

Human rights are broken into three generations: (Saito, 1996)

  1. Civil & political, embodied by the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). These rights primarily protect the individual from government overreach, including the freedom of the press, right to ownership, and equality under the law.
  2. Economic, social, & cultural, embodied by the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These rights primarily ensure equality and equity of individuals in society, including the right to work, freedom of association, and right to an education.

Third Generation human rights relate to ‘solidarity’ and broadly represent the rights of collectives, expanding human rights beyond the individual (exemplified in Generations 1 and 2; Saito, 1996). However, unlike the previous two generations, Third Generation human rights do not have a corresponding UN Covenant or Declaration to codify or clarify what these rights specifically entail. At this point in time, Third Generation human rights include the right of people to self-determination, to peace, and to the environment (Cornescu, 2009).  This last right, to the environment, is an interesting development.  This shifts the focus of human rights beyond the present circumstance and expands the purview of human rights into future generations.  If the human rights doctrine embraces this temporal expansion, what new rights may arise?

Bridge of Harbin Songhua river, illuminated at night
Bridge of Harbin Songhua river. Source: siyang xue, Creative Commons

Pushing forward the jurisdiction human into years beyond the present requires a futuristic approach to the human rights agenda, attempting to account for potential crises that may threaten the lives and livelihoods of humans of the future.  Here are a few upcoming crises requiring the attention of the human rights community:

  • Climate Change. The US Global Change Research Program recently published the “Fourth National Climate Assessment”.  This assessment urges policy-makers to take action to mitigate the effects of the global climate change crisis.  If this crisis unfolds unchecked, marginalized populations (e.g. persons dealing with the consequences of poverty, indigenous groups, and so on) will first feel the brunt of climate change, followed by economic, health, and infrastructural catastrophe.  The unwillingness to take immediate steps to curb the effects of climate change infringes of the human rights of global populations.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI). Harvard Political Philosophy Professor Dr. Mathias Risse (2018) recently published a research brief illuminating the Gordian Knot of ethics, human rights, and the creation of artificial intelligence.  Two concerns are particularly relevant to human rights: (a) the transmission of bias from human to machine (i.e. discrimination and prejudice along gender, ethnic, ableist, or ageist dimensions); and (b) the problem of value alignment (i.e. ongoing debate regarding how and which normative values should be imparted into machines).  By the same breath, Risse contends human rights advocacy networks would do well to integrate AI into their operations for two purposes: 1) to increase the efficiency and minimize human risk in humanitarian emergencies, and 2) to insert the human rights community into the AI community.  As AI technology develops, perhaps even to the point of artificial consciousness, human rights language must offer clear rules and safeguards concerning the human-AI relationship.
  • Genetic Engineering. He Jiankui Shenzhen, China, recently claimed the mantle of the first research scientist to use genetic engineering to alter embryos during fertility treatments (pending corroboration from peer reviewers).  The human right to our own genetic material has sometimes been referred to as 4th Generation human rights, and this generation declares the human genome is a crucial part of human heritage (Cornescu, 2009).  The use of genetic engineering has been considered a potential boon for eradicating diseases such as HIV/AIDS, while simultaneously harkening to Nazi sentiments regarding the creation of a perfect human race. In the coming years, the human rights community must decide, in no uncertain terms, how and if humanity itself should be subject to engineering, and how human rights fits into this process.
  • Space Colonization. (In)Famous technology personality and businessman Elon Musk claims he and his private spaceflight company SpaceX will send the first human beings to Mars at or before the year 2024, build Mars’ first city in the 2030s, and terraform Mars into an Earth-like planet throughout the 2100s.  As Musk and other billionaires seek to tame the Final Frontier, ethical concerns about the human right to and human rights in outer space must be clarified.  Most notable of these issues is that of “internality”: through lack of access and/or privilege, many humans will remain Earth-bound, with “no true escape… from the atomic bomb, terrorism, or the ecological crisis, which is already dramatically destroying our environment” (Calanchi, Farina & Barbanti, 2017, p. 215).  Stoner (2017) presents another arresting argument: space colonization is an inherently invasive act (a resurrection of the horrors of “New World” colonialism, nonetheless) and threatens to displace or destroy life on any extraterrestrial bodies that humans colonize.  Before hightailing it across outer space, perhaps our species should instead focus on the human rights crises on our home planet.
A view of outer space from the Hubble Telescope
NASA’s Hubble Telescope Finds Potential Kuiper Belt Targets for New Horizons Pluto Mission. Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Creative Commons

The Age of Human Rights?

Eighteen years ago, former UN Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan penned an editorial for Project Syndicate Magazine, lauding the fact that the UN and its member states broadly coalesced around the norm of human rights: “Above all we have committed ourselves to the idea that no individual – regardless of gender, ethnicity or race – shall have his or her human rights abused or ignored.” Cautiously optimistic from the international community’s recent outrage towards massive human rights violations and movement towards protecting vulnerable populations, Annan proclaimed that the 21st century will be the “Age of Human Rights”.  Annan’s optimism stemmed from his observation that global civil society had, in the span of 52 years, began to take seriously extrajudicial violence both within and between member states.  There is another reason to be optimistic as well.  Humans in the current day have a universal language, mechanism, and procedure to prevent global catastrophe; this was not the case leading up to the last catastrophe – World War II.

Human rights are not static concepts – they are constantly defined and redefined through developments in research, policy, and practice.  Human rights are also ideal forms – translating abstract concepts from documents such as the UDHR into the messy world of lived experience is a Herculean task.  The idea of human rights is challenged by both thought and behavior, whether the ideology of nationalism or the actions of genocidaires.  Human rights are claimed, in the sense that each one of us has a responsibility to report suspected human rights violations, to defend the notion of universal human rights from potential spoilers, and to self-advocate in instances where our rights might be diminished.  The human rights movement must also be forward-looking, anticipating future dangers well before they happen, pre-emptively codifying human rights to account for the scientific and ethical progression of human civilization.  The human rights movement is an opportunity for humanity to write its own rulebook, guiding our approach to thorny issues such as climate change, AI, genetic engineering, and space colonization.

These and more profound challenges await our species in the coming years, and an adaptive, cogent, and enforceable doctrine of human rights will prepare humanity to successfully transform these challenges into opportunities for growth for the human species.  This growth is utterly contingent upon a global commitment to the idea of human rights – that all individuals deserve a free and full life, dignified by our shared human condition and experience.  If the Age of Human Rights is indeed here, the global community should adopt an outlook of futurism in human rights: looking into the coming years, taking stock of critical issues on the horizon, and utilizing the human rights movement to brace global civil society for the coming winds of change.  It is not enough that the Age of Human Rights decries violence in all of its forms.  To future generations, the Age of Human Rights must be known for its foresight identifying, preventing, and transforming global and (perhaps) extraterrestrial challenges for the betterment of all humankind.

This post was originally written for the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10, 2018).


Calanchi, A., Farina, A. & Barbanti, R. (2017). An eco-critical cultural approach to Mars colonization. Forum for World Literature Studies, 9(2), 205-216.

Cornescu, A. V. (2009). The generations of human’s rights.  Days of Law, Conference Proceedings.  Masaryk University.

Risse, M. (2018). Human rights and artificial intelligence: An urgently needed agenda. Cambridge, MA: Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Saito, N. T. (1996). Beyond civil rights: Considering “Third Generation” international human rights law in the United States. The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, 28(2), 387-412.

Stoner, I. (2017). Humans should not colonize Mars. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 3(3), 334-353.