A Fourth Generation Of Human Rights?

A Fourth Generation of Human Rights?

Human rights are often taken for granted in day to day life in the western world, as they are enshrined in law and policy (for the most part). We often forget that Human rights have not always been guaranteed. In fact, what constitutes a ‘human right’ has been debated and changed over the last century several times. So have we got it all right? Are human rights all encompassing? Are there other things that every human should be guaranteed access to under the law? Are we on the cusp of a new human rights revolution, one driven by technology, climate change and social development? 

A brief history of rights:

It’s widely agreed that human rights as we understand them today originated in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It began to be understood that all powerful rulers should be held accountable in some ways. It became widely accepted that the best way to do this was for citizens to be given some protections and some say over those who govern them. These became known as political and civil rights. 

Second generation human rights are commonly referred to as social, economic and cultural rights. The Council of Europe defines these rights as being “based on the ideas of equality and guaranteed  access to essential social and economic goods, services, and opportunities.” These rights became particularly prominent in political discussion during the aftermath of the industrial revolution, when people began to accept that rights were about more than just protection from state dominance. Some examples of 2nd generation rights include the right to healthcare, non-discrimination and privacy. 

The idea of 3rd generation human rights mainly encompasses the idea of self-determination. In short, that is the right to determine one’s own future. These rights are often harder to enshrine in law, although an example of a reasonably successful attempt to do so can be found in the UN Declaration of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights. 

However, with rapid changes in society and the way we live occurring almost day to day, many human rights scholars are beginning to agree that a 4th generation of rights is necessary. So the question remains, should we take this seriously?

Do we need a 4th generation of rights?

In a world where more and more of our day to day lives relies on technology and access to the internet, should our notions of human rights evolve to catch up? Is access to technology something that every human should be guaranteed? Many human rights scholars seem to think so, with one of the most common notions of a ‘4th gen’ human right being that of access to the internet. With more and more jobs and tasks requiring some element of technology, the lack of access to it can leave individuals at a serious disadvantage in their work and education. We already see this in New Zealand, where recent changes to the curriculum have required students to often bring their own devices to class. Many families are struggling to keep up with the added expenses that come along with this. But the trade off is difficult, if they can’t afford these devices, are their children disadvantaged in the education system? Access to the internet is another example of this. While not so much in developed nations, many every-day people do not have access to the internet or at least a reliable connection. Does this mean that we are yet once again pricing people out of access to education, a universal right defined in article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)?

Access to the internet may also prove to be a core human right in years to come. It can already be seen that internet suppression in places like Jammu and Kashmir has huge ramifications for the quality of life for those that live there. India is not alone in this kind of incident though. The advocacy group Access Now documented 56 incidents of internet suppression around the world by 2016 and included countries such as Algeria, Ethiopia, and Pakistan. In an increasingly globalized world, does access to the internet need to be protected by the law? The Carnegie Endowment for Peace already argues that suppression of internet access can effectively be used as a chokehold on civil society and free political discourse, with knock on effects for many human rights that already exist in the UDHR. In both the UHDR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights there are key links to this idea. Article 19 of the UHDR highlights that  “everyone has the right . . . to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. While the political discourse around rights to the internet and technology are beginning to become more coherent, there is still a long way to go it seems. 

Very closely linked to the above ideas of technological advancement and human rights is the idea of biotechnology. We are not so far away from a future where people may be able to “upgrade” themselves with technological implants, or even be genetically engineered before birth to eradicate certain unfavorable genetic traits, for example baldness. Although this seems like a positive step to many, it could have some dark consequences. Imagine a world where if you had enough money you could pay for your child to have increased intelligence, strength and good looks all before they were even born? This raises serious ethical questions, not least in the area of human rights. Should all people be afforded the access to these same opportunities? After all, article one of the UDHR is that all people are that all humans are free and equal. Will rapid advancements in biotechnology mean that this basic right is left nullified?

While these ideas are still very hypothetical, a perhaps more tangible and relevant example of the need to rethink human rights lies in climate change and migration. In a world where climate change is increasingly displacing large numbers of people, should we enshrine people’s right to escape the effects? Articles 13 and 14 of the UDHR already provide some basis to this. Article 13 is the right to free movement in and out of a state and 14 is the right to asylum in other states where one will be free from persecution. Politics and history already tell us that these are some of the most contested and loosely enforced rights in practice today and the effects of climate change are likely to make them worse. The mass migration into Europe over the last decade from climate affected countries shows that states are already leaning heavily into protectionist policies as a result. But as the issue is likely to become more widespread, should international law and human rights catch up? Should the right to asylum be extended to cover those forced to leave their homes due to climate change? While the legal questions around this issue are almost endless, the need to address these type of issues is steadily growing. 

While these issues are still at this stage largely hypothetical, they are fast becoming tangible problems to our concepts of human rights that we may need to address soon. At the end of the day, only time will tell if we need a 4th generation of human rights. 

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