Protecting Human Rights Begins with Adopting a Global Mindset

by Maria Budig | Feb 15, 2018

“Creating opportunities for women to have equal rights in the workplace”

“Understanding cultural nuances in order to strengthen universal rights”

“Procuring the humane treatment and successful integration of displaced people in host countries”

These are just a few topics that were raised at a number of Model United Nations conferences, and, admittedly, I found myself confused. What were we actually trying to achieve? Wasn’t our goal to help end poverty and ensure political stability? Or perhaps it was to stop wars by coming to mutual agreements? Besides sounding like they could have also served as one of the “big questions” we address in class at Minerva, I was unsure what all of these sentences had in common.

And then it came to me.

All of them have one underlying aim: to define standards for equal human rights around the world. Human rights. Human. Rights. Two words that, for many, have a positive connotation when used together, bringing to mind principles like freedom of speech, access to education, or basic necessities, such as water and sanitation.

When doing some research, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights — a historical document adopted by their General Assembly — and how the organization defined “human rights” caught my attention. According to the United Nations (UN), fundamental rights and human rights are synonymous.

There, before me, as I read the declaration on my computer, was a definition of “human rights” and a list of specific rights the UN believes everybody — irrespective of who they are and where they come from — should have.

But if we have these concrete guidelines, why is society still deeply unequal in innumerable ways? Why do women so often have lower wages compared to their male counterparts in similar positions? Why are children still used around the world as soldiers? We blame egocentrism, psychopathy, greed, and human nature for disregarding human rights. But maybe the problem also lies in the definition. The UN, afterall, did not account for two important factors when it established the aforementioned declaration 70 years ago: perspective, and how it changes over time.

If there is one thing that has become clear to me as a student of Minerva, it’s that people raised in different cultures have different perspectives. What may seem unethical for one person, for example, may be completely normal to another. Moreover, these cultural “norms” don’t always remain consistent over time. Consider the concept and practice of slavery, abortion, or the death penalty.

Even though many human rights violations can indeed be blamed on motivations, such as greed or the thirst for power, we also need to account for the ones that happen subconsciously due to our preconceived expectations or beliefs. It’s hard to question whether something is a violation of human rights, for example, if it is thought of as normal by society.

The only way to create true equality is by putting human prosperity above all else. As utopian as this may seem, it is crucial we do our best to understand opposing views and put our biases aside before we act; only once we do this can we be truly objective, see beyond societal “norms,” and understand the state of human rights both locally and globally.

Throughout the next four years, my classmates and I will travel the world, living and learning in San Francisco, Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, and Taipei. We have begun to explore human rights in the context of San Francisco, and will continue to do so in each city, learning how domestic challenges — whether economic, social, or cultural — impact the extent to which certain fundamental rights are recognized and safeguarded by the local and national governments.

San Francisco, for example, is grappling with homelessness, while Berlin is facing issues with gentrification. London must come up with solutions to its overpopulation, while Hyderabad has to improve its citizens’ safety. We will continue to help tackle many of these issues, alongside locals, through co-curriculars, volunteering, collaborating with Civic Partners, and working on our final projects each semester.

In a way, our experience at Minerva is doing exactly what Model UN conferences are trying to achieve. It challenges us to adopt different perspectives and, hopefully, will give us a deeper understanding of the scope and limitations of “fundamental rights” — including how we as global citizens can ensure they are implemented.