These are exciting and perplexing times in of terms assessing and measuring human progress: few things provide a better example of this complexity than charting the history and evolution of human rights. There is always an arbitrary nature in measuring periods, but if we could reflect on the changes that have occurred in our world from say the opening of the Canadian Museum of Civilization on June 29, 1989 to the future opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on September 20, 2014 one cannot help but be taken by how far the link of living in a civilized world is connected to living in a world grounded by human rights.
For all the failures and set backs (Tiananmen Square, Rwanda, the Serb-Croat-Bosnian War, etc.), it has been the consistent call for human rights expressed by the people who have been left marginalized, excluded, exposed to violence, hatred and humiliation that has defined our modern era. Certainly since 1945 and even more intensely since the end of the Cold War. Looking back, this march of progress towards human rights seems so natural and obvious that it appears to be almost ‘second nature’; like many to all forms of human progress there was nothing natural or preordained about it, it was hard-won and hard-fought. A good sampling of these struggles is found the essays in Samuel Moyn’s, ‘Human Rights and the Uses of History’, and also Aryeh Neier’s, ‘The International Human Rights Movement’. An excellent source to find primary sources of key human rights documents and laws is Philip Alston and Ryan Goodman’s ‘International Human Rights: texts and materials’ and Jack Donnelly provides context of human rights and world politics.
An emerging and controversial concept in studying human rights is the question whether human rights are truly universal or merely a unique concept of the west? Books that explore these themes is John Headley ‘The Europeanization of the World: on the origins of human rights and democracy’, and David Kinley’s ‘Civilising Globalisation: human rights and the global economy’. Here Kinley makes the point that human rights and global economic growth should not be considered mutually exclusive and a more nuanced view of combing political and economic rights should be pursued.
The unifying factor in tracing the history of human rights is the fundamental idea of human dignity. This is represented by George Kateb’s ‘Human Dignity’, Ruti Teitel’s ‘Humanity’s Law’, and Charles Beitz’s ‘The Idea of Human Rights’. Part of that requirement for human dignity is to recognize and take appropriate responsibility for past injustices committed against people either within and beyond our borders. Mark Gibney’s ‘The Age of Apology: facing up to the past’ and Robert Rotberg and Dennis Thompson’s ‘Truth v. justice’ argue about the importance of providing a critical self-assessment of past injustices, but also the possible limitations of this approach.
We all have to share in this world and we also must interact with each other with respect, humility and toleration; whether it is trade, the environment, global or local politics living to the ideals of human rights and human dignity should be our beacon. Civilizing our impulses and desires by protecting our human rights is in my modest opinion civilizing humans done right.