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The Future of Human Rights

Theme 2020-2021

The idea of human rights has been challenged for being too legalistic, state-centered, too reactive, ever expanding in its scope, weak in implementation, coopted by the powerful, irrelevant on big issues in society such as inequality, possibly not equipped conceptually to account for the increasing complexities and uncertainties of the current world and so on.

Whether these weaknesses are genuine or only perceived, mainstream, legal dogmatic approaches to human rights call for novel and critical social science perspectives to adapt to changing times. This Theme will centre its work around the question "what is the future of human rights?"

Seventy-two years ago the General Assembly of the United Nations, inspired by the enormity of human suffering brought about by WWII, proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations’. Human rights are part of the international, regional and national legal and institutional landscapes. 

Achievements since have been significant, with human rights enshrined in a host of treaties coupled with an elaborate international machinery and with dramatic gains in the standard of living of billions of people around the world as reflected in the Human Development Index and other measures. However, with the rise of populism and authoritarianism, sometimes enabled and exacerbated by digital technologies and economic opportunities in the global markets, combined with the catastrophic and socially disruptive impacts of climate change, this early period may come to be considered a golden age for human rights.

Key institutions and the substantive rights they uphold (including both economic and social rights such as the right to food, the right to health, and civil and politicalrights such as the right to privacy and the right to political participation) are under threat, calling into question the future of the human rights system as we know it.

The Theme will examine three ‘nexus points’

Corporatisation; Migration; and Authoritarianism – as sites where both the changes to the earth’s systems and changes to social systems are visible in themselves as well as in conjunction. We place the analysis of these deeply interconnected features of life in the era of early Anthropocene and Digitalisation.