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The seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) comes at a time of more contestation than usual over the future of human rights. A sense of urgency animates debates over whether the institutions and ideas of human rights can, or should, survive current geopolitical changes. This symposium, by contrast, shifts the lens to a more slow-moving but equally profound challenge to human rights law: how technology and its impacts on our social and physical environments are reshaping the debate on what it means to be human. Can the UDHR be recast for a time in which new technologies are continually altering how humans interact, and the legal status of robots, rivers, and apes alike are at times argued in the language of rights?
Using the example of harmful speech online, this essay argues that duties to others—a core component of our humanness—require us to consider the impact our speech has on those who hear it. The widening availability of tools for sharing information and the rise of social media have opened up new avenues for individuals to communicate without the need for journalistic intermediaries. While this presents considerable opportunities for expression, it also means that there are fewer filters in place to manage the harmful effects of speech. Moreover, the structure of online spaces and the uneven legal frameworks that regulate them have exacerbated the effects of harmful speech, allowing mob behavior, harassment, and virtual violence, particularly against minority populations and other vulnerable groups.
“Digital technology is transforming what it means to be a subject.” The increase in the use of big data, self-learning algorithms, and fully automated decision-making processes calls into question the concept of human agency that is at the basis of much of modern human rights law. Already today, it is possible to imagine a form of “algorithmic authority,” i.e., the exercise of authority over individuals based on the more or less automated use of algorithms. What would this development mean for human rights law and its central categories? What does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted seventy years ago as a founding document of the human rights movement at the international level, have to say about this?
This essay discusses how, despite the liberatory potential of technology, racial bias pervades the digital space. This bias creates tension with both the formal, de jure equality notion of “colorblindness” (in U.S. constitutional law) as well as the broader, substantive, de facto equality idea (in international human rights law). The essay draws on the work of Osagie Obasogie to show how blind people perceive race in the same way as sighted people, despite not being able to see race. It then uses blindness as a metaphor to explore how race is seen and not seen online, and analyzes the implications of this for human rights.
With the ever-increasing range of medical technologies at our disposal to mediate the processes of life, from conception to death, comes an ever-increasing number of decision points about human control of fate. And as we debate altering our fate—whether dictated by a deity or by chance—the discussion frequently devolves into a question of whether we may alter not only our own fate, but also that of our children. The advent of genome editing, whether by older methods or the newer, often more easily used methods employing CRISPR, has only made debating the controversial possibility of heritable “germline” editing more urgent. The advent of genome editing, whether by older methods or the newer, often more easily used methods employing CRISPR, has only made debating the controversial possibility of heritable “germline” editing more urgent. On the eve of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, held at the end of November 2018 in Hong Kong, a startling and disturbing story began circulating - a Chinese researcher announced the first births of children whose genomes had been edited at the embryonic stage. The work (assuming the claim can be verified) suffered from myriad problems, beginning with the lack of a compelling medical need, and including inadequate preclinical research, lack of peer review, flawed subject recruitment and consent procedures, and an apparent disregard for both formal and informal rules governing genetic manipulation of embryos. The summit's organizing committee issued a statement, distinguishing this experiment from what would be a responsible translational pathway forward. But not surprisingly, others around the world immediately called for a global, enforceable prohibition on such genetic engineering. On the occasion of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR)’s seventieth anniversary, this essay argues that the current human rights law on germline editing misunderstands both the mechanisms of genetics and the moral basis for human rights, suggesting a more nuanced approach as we move forward and keep pace with new gene-editing technologies.
This essay considers the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) at a time at which humans are dramatically changing the planet, prompting scientists to suggest that we are living in a new geological epoch: “the Anthropocene.” The Anthropocene, even if an essentially contested concept, prompts reconsideration of our interhuman socioeconomic relations and our understanding of the human-nature interface, both of which come with significant challenges. This essay suggests that the UDHR offers the space for engaging with these challenges, if we adopt an Anthropocene-relevant reading of its provisions. This essay also argues that such a reading of the UDHR, on its own, is unlikely to lead to the adoption of an Anthropocene-relevant reading of other international instruments, international economic instruments in particular. It points to enhanced regime interaction as a way to address this issue.
In May 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke about illegal border crossings: “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in … . You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals.” Such dehumanization (in this case of undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border) has been a standard discursive strategy to prepare, instigate, facilitate, and exculpate violence committed by humans against other humans throughout history. It is exactly in reaction to excesses of such dehumanizing mass violence committed in the Third Reich and during World War II that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948. This essay argues that the objectives of the UDHR itself would be furthered if the United Nations (or another international body such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, or the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)) engaged in work on a universal animal rights declaration. While animal welfare is increasingly protected in domestic jurisdictions, animal rights are still hardly recognized, although they would serve animals better. Animal rights would need to be universalized in order to have an effect in a globalized setting. The international legal order is flexible and receptive to nonhuman personhood. The historical experience with international human rights encourages the international animal rights project, because it shows how the equally pertinent objection of cultural imperialism can be overcome. Animal rights would complement human rights not least because the entrenchment of the species-hierarchy, as manifest in the denial of animal rights in many cases, condones disrespect for the rights of humans themselves.