Ruth Lewis a member of our Emerging Fellows program asks if human rights can preserve liberty in her sixth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
How do we regard human rights and liberty now and in the future? Can our current understanding of human rights and values guide us toward a better understanding of the challenges that we face every day to our free choice and will, preventing harm to society?
Our current notions of individual liberty and human rights were developed through the Enlightenment in response to the separation of church and state, and in the mid-20th Century, in response to the terrible atrocities committed during World War 2 and beyond. They reflect our growing awareness and action to remedy our appalling treatment of minority ethnicity, disabilities, women, refugees, and children, to prevent acts such as torture, unlawful incarceration and genocide. These principles were laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), and in regional instruments like the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). They lay the foundation of minimum protection of individuals and groups from the worst of humanity’s barbarism and to promote human life with freedom and dignity that is conducive to our physical, mental, social and spiritual welfare.
Our personal liberty is to be bounded only by these international and regional agreements for the purpose of respecting other people’s right to freedom, civil order and the welfare of society. This includes of the right to privacy, protection of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, opinion and expression. These agreements prohibit any propaganda for war, or advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that provides incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.
The International Declarations and Covenants protections came into force in 1976, ensuring legal enforcement by all signatory parties. Together with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 (2015), these agreements show the most noble aspect of human values that we aspire to uphold and promote for current and future generations’ rights and liberty. In this context, this includes the right to economic, civil, cultural, political and social development.
Yet despite these intentions, in today’s society we see outcomes of commercial or State enterprise that undermine the intentions of our human rights. These outcomes subvert the free will of the individual and promote hatred, racism and violence within society.
For regular Internet users, our access to vast amounts of information promotes our sense of liberty, and amplifies the reach of our free speech and commercial opportunities. However, covertly our online presence is tracked and inundated with incentives to buy products, and to think or behave in a certain way. These incentives are curated through computer algorithms that follow our online entries, forming a profile as a basis of commercial business models that look to inform or change the way we would otherwise entertain our free will or action. Through lack of active prevention, these algorithms also foster online prejudice, racism and hate, drawing followers of like mind toward vilification, creating bullying, intimidation and racist propaganda which spreads throughout the online and physical world.
Human rights and values are supplanted with short-term exploitation of human liberty for profit gain, for manipulation and misuse. Our freedom to make personal choice and lifestyle is eroded or falsified, and those who may do harm seem incentivised.
Our Human Rights of the present and future must be based on custodial governance over our present liberty and resources in order to preserve our humane society for current and future generations. We must govern our commercial and State enterprises for social benefit as well as profit, and protect the community and individual in accordance with our Human Rights and societal values.
Global Human Rights commissions and various standards associations are now beginning to recognise these online violations, and seek to redress this gap by defining emerging codes of conduct for our online service providers and developers. These new conventions seek to make the latter accountable for the ‘unintended’ consequences of their business models, and to include human values in the design of online innovations.
Commercial enterprise innovation and growth is now being incentivised by global standards towards developing long-term commercial goals and non-financial societal measures for which they may be held accountable and protects Human Rights. Society is endorsing through positive investments in sustainable enterprises. This facilitates the path toward liberty in the face of challenges brought about by our modern world. But how will our governance and policy mechanisms evolve in the future to ensure liberty?
© Ruth Lewis 2019