October 17 , 2005
Evans is executive director of the Institute of Human Rights and a
lecturer in the Rollins School of Public Health.
On Wednesday of this week, Emory will witness its third
Classroom on the Quad. In what is now an annual event, faculty from across
the University will gather with students on our physical common ground,
the Quadrangle, to seek philosophical common ground on some of the most
contentious issues of our time.
Begun in 2003 as a response to the
polarization of student groups over the impending war in Iraq, Classroom
on the Quad encourages the expression of a wide range of perspectives,
academic freedom and respect for personal differences. I hope this year‚s
theme of human rights will highlight more commonalities than differences;
after all, few among us would openly stand against human rights. But the
devil is in the details.
When we begin discussing whose rights, which
rights, and how we perceive or claim those rights, differences of opinion
Whenever I begin teaching on this topic, one of my first
questions is always: What are human rights? Students shout out
answers like „freedom of speech,š and „life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness.š As Americans, we are extremely aware of our rights. We pound
our chests and claim our rights when they are being violated. But
sometimes we fail to recognize the sources of these rights.
times, our rights come from domestic sources of law such as the
Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or other federal law. Other
times our rights may be grounded in international human rights law. On
topics such as civil and political rights, international law and domestic
law often are in harmony, but other types of rights (economic, social,
cultural) are not emphasized in the same ways in the United States for
historical reasons, such as the Cold War.
Modern concepts of human
rights began with the emergence of nation states, the establishment of
state sovereignty and John Locke‚s characterization of natural rights.
Locke proposed that the rights to life, liberty and estate or property
However, Locke‚s rights were limited to male,
Christian land owners. The concept of rights further evolved with the
Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man,
and the U.S. Bill of Rights, which were mostly composed of civil and
political rights. The early 20th century saw the creation of the Mexican
and Soviet constitutions, which introduced social and economic rights into
Looking at this brief history, we can see that
the concept of rights is an evolving one. Loosely defined, our
contemporary understanding of human rights is that they are a set of
beliefs about the societal basis of human well-being that describes the
relationships between individuals and society, and what people need to
maintain their human dignity.
At the international level, the legal
framework for human rights is based in the United Nations (U.N.) system.
In fact, the preamble to the U.N. charter makes reference to the „dignityš
and the „equal and unalienable rights of all members of the human familyš
as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. The charter
goes on to identify the promotion and respect of human rights as being one
of the purposes of the international body.
The U.N. was founded on
the heels of one of the most horrible atrocities known to mankind, the
Holocaust, by a world community catalyzed (even traumatized) to action. On
Dec. 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously adopted the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted by a committee chaired by Eleanor
Roosevelt, the declaration outlined the basic human rights and fundamental
freedoms belonging to all human beings. Two additional treaties, the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, further detail and
legally bind state parties to respect, protect and fulfill these rights.
Oct. 24 will mark the U.N.‚s 60th anniversary, and in the time
since its founding, great strides have been made in regard to human
rights. The international community has ratified treaties outlawing
genocide, torture, racial discrimination, discrimination against women,
and calling for the protection of refugees and the rights of
Yet we know that genocide is occurring in Sudan, and that
abuse of prisoners has occurred in Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantanamo
Bay. We know human rights abuses do not just occur „out there,š as
witnessed by the stories of African Americans who allegedly were prevented
on the basis of their skin color from crossing a bridge in Gretna, La., in
the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The fact that these atrocities and
many others still take place highlights several weaknesses in the existing
human rights regime. In terms of their language, human rights treaties are
framed as both ideals and benchmarks. Because some rights are resource
dependent, it may not be possible for states to fulfill all rights
immediately. This principle, known as progressive realization, allows for
the gradual improvement of human rights over time, but on the negative
side, it can allow states to fail to prioritize certain rights or certain
types of rights. We may also see retrogressive measures that may chip away
at established rights, such as the invasions of privacy and abuses of
civil liberties resulting from the USA PATRIOT Act and guidelines
justifying maltreatment of detainees authored by now-Attorney General
In times of crisis, we often see politicians
contracting rights and civil liberties in the name of security, when
instead we should be calling for their expansion. Just as we have seen
natural rights belonging to Christian, property-owning men expand to the
universal, interdependent and unalienable concept of rights we have now,
so too must we work toward an ever-expanding concept of rights on the
basis of the weaknesses in our existing understanding.
evolution of human rights is not at odds with the values we hear often in
politicians‚ speeches. They widely cite „freedom,š along with principles
of equality, non-discrimination, representation, participation and dignity
as some of the core values of culture and society.
But we must also
challenge the existing system to respect the rights of others outside our
Western value structure. We must promote the expansion of the different
types of rights we value to include economic, social and cultural rights.
And we must call upon civil actors, such as multinational corporations, to
be held accountable to standards of human rights.
It is my hope
that, as we meet on the Quad later this week, we can begin to discuss the
ways in which human rights may be expanded as a tool for negotiating our
differences. Classroom on the Quad will serve as an opportunity for us to
fulfill the vision outlined by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights
Louise Arbour, who said: „Human rights are our common heritage, and their
realization depends on the contributions that each and every one of us is
willing to make, individually and collectively, now and in the