Harry Reid: The Development of Human Rights

With my time in Paris freshly behind me, I have my first proper chance to reflect on the past two weeks and what my biggest takeaways from them have been. To aid this process, I thought I would use this time as an opportunity to write my next blog piece while the trip is still fresh in my mind. Despite the trip being full of cultural highlights that would make for incredible travel writing, if you’ve read any of my previous blog pieces you’ll know I’m not really one for anecdotal writing (that’s what a few years of studying Law will do to you). Instead, I thought I would again focus on some of the ideas presented in the conferences and meetings we attended as there was no shortage of interesting content to work with. 

A reoccurring question that we faced in these conferences and meetings was how to address the wellbeing of people in today’s global economy. Inherent in these discussions is a vague understanding of human rights as they are widely regarded as being a measure of well-being; with the degree to which one’s rights are solidified determining the state of their well-being. However, as alluded to, today’s global economy is increasingly volatile, meaning that human rights are frequently infringed upon and as a result, begin to mean less to those who fall victim to this. Therefore, I thought I would provide an overview of some of the key discussions that we had on this subject in order to theorise where human rights presently stand and what actions could be taken to ensure that they operate as intended.

Before doing so, the concept of ‘human rights’ needs to be given more meaning. A useful way of doing so is to assess the two situations where human rights violations typically occur and how they are resolved; on one hand, there are those that occur in the context of crisis and wartime and on the other, there are those that occur on a more day to day basis.

The former violations are otherwise known as ‘crimes against humanity’, which include crimes like genocide. While there is an International Criminal Court that deals with these cases, there is no International Human Rights Court per se. The only other body that can resolve these cases is the International Court of Justice, which is almost always comprised partly of judges from veto nations. This issue was raised in our meeting with Antoine Madelin, the International Advocacy Director at the International Federation for Human Rights, where he argued that the veto power should be abolished as not only is it relatively arbitrary, but it is also one of the greatest hurdles in resolving these violations as it enables member nations to oppose proposed redress whenever they want; which seems to be often.

Conversely, the more day to day violations occur in relation to political rights, such as the right to life and the right to freedom of expression. These are regarded as ‘fundamental rights’ and are protected accordingly. In Aotearoa, this protection takes the form of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA). However, while the legislative recognition given to these rights is obviously a good thing, Madelin also argues that this has come at the cost of social and economic rights. This disenfranchises those from lower socio-economic backgrounds from engaging in human rights discussions as they no longer perceive things like healthcare and housing as a right, thereby weakening both their support for and belief in the concept of ‘human rights’ in general.

Therefore, to more actively engage society in human rights advocacy we need to reconfigure the approach that is presently employed and work towards establishing a more guaranteed set of rights for all. For instance, the United Nations are developing an international Treaty that will impose an obligation on corporations to enforce their own human rights regulations. The reasoning behind doing so is to reiterate the fact that human rights need to be protected even in smaller localised environments such as the workforce, and as the name suggests, be applied to everyone. 

A final and slight side note that I found particularly interesting was the possibility of introducing a Digital Bill of Rights Act as we find ourselves in an increasingly digitalised age, whereby privacy and data protection are so easily threatened. While reaching a consensus on what this would look like would be very difficult, it is another good example of developing human rights accordingly as it recognises the fact that with new challenges come necessary changes in how we go about protecting our rights.

While this is a very brief overview of a very heavy subject matter, the main takeaway is that while we like to think that human rights are guaranteed, when there are such overwhelming obstacles in the way of resolving disputes, and when certain rights are valued over others, this simply isn't a reality. Therefore, a more proactive and inclusive approach is necessary if we want to ensure that human rights are developed, advocated for and protected accordingly.

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.


Posted on June 4, 2018 and filed under OECD Forum 2018.