published December 10, 2013

New SENCER Backgrounder on Modern Human Rights

David Burns, NCSCE

As Jessica M. Wyndham of the American Association of the Advancement of Science has noted, Human Rights Day as celebrated each December 10th "commemorates the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first international statement of human rights, the Universal Declaration addresses civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights and forms the basis for all subsequent international, regional and domestic human rights instruments."

During the past year, we published a series of short articles by Ms. Wyndham and others on human rights, particularly the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress. The National Center and the SENCER project became involved in the AAAS Coalition on Human Rights at the urging and through the leadership of Karen Oates. Karen and I represent the Center on the Coalition and Karen has been chosen to be an at-large member of the Coalition's governing group. Through my membership on the sub-committee on education, I met Sam McFarland, the sub-committee co-chair. Sam is a professor emeritus of psychology at Western Kentucky University and has been long interested, as a scholar and human rights advocate, in the progress of human rights around the globe.

The general concept of human rights is, of course, a concept easily grasped, but also easily misunderstood, by most Americans. We are most familiar with our Bill of Rights—a founding document that limits the powers of our national government. This limiting quality has been described as asserting our freedom from what could be abuses or usurpations of power by a government. As Sam notes, we are less familiar with other rights regimes that accord rights to citizens, or that establish and extend claims to be "redeemed" from governments.

This tension about the two natures of rights framed early discussions of human rights and extends even into the discussion of rights to scientific advances today. Do we, for example, have a right to be free from the advances of science, such as technological innovations that infringe on our privacy? These and other difficult questions represent not just vital issues that draw and deserve our attention, but, as Karen has noted, they are also excellent vehicles for developing critical skills in moral and other reasoning.

It's also the case that discussions of universal rights are often carried out in what we might call "diplomatic language"—the language of international relations. Add to this the fact that human rights are an emerging, developing and ever changing set of discussions and considerations. Recall Senator Dole's recent visit to the Senate floor to advocate for ratification a treaty on the rights of the disabled.

The issues are so complex and the language in which they are discussed often seems quite foreign to Americans. Because of this, I thought it would be very helpful to have a briefing document that could serve as a starting point for further consideration of these topics by interested students and faculty members. I invited to Professor McFarland contribute a backgrounder to our collection. Sam graciously agreed to do so.

Thus, our newest SENCER backgrounder by Sam McFarland of Western Kentucky University provides, "A Very Brief Overview of Modern Human Rights," for those interested in introducing discussions on the complex topic with colleagues and students representing all disciplines. The backgrounder includes a history of the development of human rights declarations and their implications, both for national and international law, in stemming atrocious violations of rights. Sam invites readers to consider the "universal" moral origins of, and backing for, human rights, regardless of nationality, secularism, religion, or cultural diversity. Readers who spend the hour it might take to read the document carefully will emerge with a very useful overview of the underlying philosophy, practical development, complex implications, and future challenges that attend to extending rights to all humans around the globe. A future backgrounder will pay special attention to Article 18—the rights to the benefits of science. Backgrounders are free and available online. We encourage you to use them in your courses and appreciate hearing from you when you do. To access the full backgrounder, please click here.

Karen and I, and our student representative to the Coalition, Katherine Picchione, extend our warm appreciation to Sam for his contribution to our community.

Additional Thought Provoking Science and Human Rights Articles

In recognition of Human Rights Day, we also invite you to revisit the many eNews articles published on the topic of the intersection of science and human rights over the past year and a half:

Science and Human Rights: Making the Connection (Jessica M. Wyndham)

Scientific Freedom and Human Rights: Existing Battlegrounds (Jessica M. Wyndham)

Access to Science – Another Human Rights Struggle (Karen Kashmanian Oates)

Applying Scientific Method and Technology to Human Rights (Jessica M. Wyndham)

Celebrating Human Rights Day and the Right to Benefit from Scientific Progress (Jessica M. Wyndham)

The Human Rights Implications of Scientific Conduct (Theresa Harris)

Barriers to Access the Benefits of Scientific Progress: A Global Perspective (Jessica M. Wyndham)

Why Integrate Human Rights into STEM Education? (Jessica M. Wyndham)

The Art and Science of Human Rights (Karen Kashmanian Oates)

Science, Human Rights, and National Security (Jessica M. Wyndham)

Science, Human Rights, and the Expanding Role of the Private Sector (Jessica M. Wyndham)

Science, Human Rights, and Your Involvement (Jessica M. Wyndham)

Reflection on Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting (Katherine Picchione)