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Can Digital Human Rights Be Sustained in an Evolving UN?

Are Human Rights, both traditional and digital, at risk of becoming an empty promise?1 The political environment for Human Rights has notably deteriorated since the United Nation’s (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. How have things changed?

The 1948 Political Climate Supported the UN’s Human Rights Initiative

The UN’s Charter was adopted in June 1945 led by the victorious Allied powers. At its founding, the UN had 51 Member States. The Charter referenced the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” The full scope of the horrors of the WWII were still coming into public view and motivated support for an international structure to avoid repeating them.

One of the first acts of the new General Assembly in 1947 was to form a Commission on Human Rights, which created a Drafting Committee to expound a consensus view of “human rights.” In May 1948, the Committee proposed a Draft “International Declaration of Human Rights” and an “International Covenant of Human Rights,” which together formed an “International Bill of Rights.” It had two parts because the Americans emphasized that human rights consisted primarily of political rights, while the Soviet bloc focused on social and economic rights.

The UDHR was adopted on December 10, 1948. Of the 58 UN Members at the time, 48 voted in favor, eight abstained, and two did not vote. It consisted of 30 Articles detailing an individual’s “basic rights and fundamental freedoms” and affirming their universal character as inherent, inalienable, and applicable to all human beings. Abstaining were: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, Byelorussian SSR, Ukrainian SSR, South Africa, and Yugoslavia; Honduras and Yemen did not vote. The UDHR was not a binding treaty, had no enforcement provisions, and described human rights in aspirational terms subject to interpretation. The lack of firm commitments facilitated an agreement.

Disagreements and Deviations Have Increased

Some disagreed. Saudi Arabia had religious objections based on sharīʿa. South Africa was concerned about apartheid. The Soviet bloc found it inconsistent with socialism. While it can be said that the UDHR was “unanimously” adopted, rationales for future objections were already being laid. Subsequent expansion to 193 Member States has multiplied the reservations. Many new Members questioned if the UDHR was consistent with their interests. Critics of Human Rights’ “universality” claimed that the selected rights embody “Western” values, mores, and norms and are not appropriate for different cultures.

Concurrently, there has been a rise in cultural relativism led by Russia and China, which see human rights as situational and subject to national sovereignty. They use the language of 1948 but mean its opposite. The Chinese model of development, combining political repression and economic liberalism, has attracted admirers. Authoritarianism has gained ground in India, Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela while the moral authority of the U.S. and EU has weakened as they are seen as promoting “Human Rights” only when it suits their strategic interests.

The Numbers Tell the Story: The Trend is Away From Human Rights

Since 2006, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has published a “Democracy Index.”2 It covers 165 countries representing nearly all of the world’s population. It is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; functioning of government; political participation; political culture, and civil liberties. This is arguably a fair proxy for support for human rights.

The Index provides a summary table by regime type. Twenty-four countries (14.4%) with 8% of the world’s population were rated “full democracies.” Forty-eight countries (28.7%) with 37.3% of the world’s population were “flawed democracies.” Thirty-six countries (21.6%) with 17.9% of the world’s population were “hybrid regimes.” Fifty-nine countries (35.3%) with 36.9% of the world’s population were considered “authoritarian regimes.”

In all, 72 (43.1%) countries can be considered full or flawed democracies, while the other 95 (56.9%) cannot. Democracies contain 45.3% of the world’s population, authoritarian nations 54.8%. This stands in stark comparison to 1948. This is of particular significance in multi-lateral institutions such as the UN, where the rule is “one country, one vote”. In 2022 the average overall global score was 5.29 (out of 10), down from 5.55 in 2014 and 2015. The 2022 score was up .01 from 5.28 in 2021, which the EIU attributes to lifting pandemic-related restrictions. Otherwise, the long term HR trend seems to be slow but steady decline.

The Outlook: Human Rights as Part of Reimagined Multi-Lateralism at the UN

The purpose of this note is to flag the gravity of the challenge facing the Human Rights agenda going forward. The UN has initiated a process of rethinking the nature of multi-lateralism in a framework including multi-stakeholder entities. The outcome is uncertain. Where is Human Rights in that conversation? Reliance on the efficacy alone of the UDHR has had limited success. Consideration is being given to linking the UDHR to the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What is matters is that Human Rights remain salient and are reinforced by connection to the tangible benefits of their implementation.

In particular, this must involve the engagement of the “Global South” in advancing Human Rights norms and their leadership in international bodies and procedures for realizing them. They have a vested interest in the SDGs and, by their numbers, can have a significant influence on outcomes. Human rights are fighting an uphill battle and need real support, not just double-speak, lip service and virtue signaling to fulfill their original promise.

  1. For in-depth discussion see “Preserving Human Rights Across the Digital Domain” (Taylor, 2022) 
  2. The Economist Intelligence Unit (2023). “Democracy Index 2022”. 
  1. The above post was previously published on the IITF Human Rights in the digital Domain Blog.

By Richard Taylor, Palmer Chair and Professor of Telecommunications Studies and Law Emeritus, Penn State University

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