This post is the second in a series that explores how the millennial generation understands and engages with human rights issues, from the perspective of Human Rights and Democracy Intern Stephanie Mayle, a rising junior at Duke University. To read the first post in the series, “What Human Rights Means to Millennials Like Me,” click here.
To be frank, I hadn’t given much thought to the term “human rights” until entering college. Up to that point, if someone had asked me what human rights were, I probably could have listed off some examples, but wouldn’t have been able to given a complete definition. Things like the right to clean water, the right to freedom or to practice one’s chosen religion seemed self-evident to me. As my mother would tell me at the dinner table when I was younger, “You better finish everything on your plate, there are kids starving in Africa, you know.” Of course something like food is a human right – everyone simply should have it, regardless of nationality, socioeconomic status, race, etc. While in no way would that answer have been incorrect, my formal coursework in college has allowed me to expand my definition and understand better how wide the scope of human rights really is.
Last semester, I took a class called Intro to Human Rights, a prerequisite for my certificate in human rights. I was originally drawn to study human rights because I found there to be an intersection between international law and cultural norms. During my human rights course, I found this perceived junction, and much more, to be true. We covered a variety of human rights topics, from mass incarceration to torture to LGBTQ rights in China. Some of the topics, like the Holocaust, provided vivid examples to me of moments when human rights were violated. Others appeared less recognizable, but no less important, like the intersection of poverty and environmental waste in Alabama.
As I learned from Amartya Sen’s Human Rights Theory, human rights is a culture more so than something tangible. The fight for the realization of rights is ongoing and fueled by individual and collective action; it requires conversation and movement across borders and cultures. Just because a certain right isn’t realized yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t a right. Human rights are inherent to all humans. They are universal, individual, and require no return payment.
What these discussions showed me is not only that human rights are much more encompassing than I had ever imagined, but they are constantly growing and evolving. What may not have been considered a strictly human right two decades ago could be considered one now, and the same with two decades from present day. I find this an incredibly inspiring thought. As a society, we are constantly striving to elevate those whose rights are not realized and redefining the forms oppression can take.
To me, human rights are both fluid and defined. They are not only limited to the sentences stated in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet they are the solid basis for the way we interact with one another as humans and as communities. Take the global refugee crisis, for example: human rights require other countries to afford certain claims to refugees, as well as protects refugees from being forcibly returned to their original place of conflict. In this way, human rights act as both the sword and the shield – to be a driving force and a protecting defense.
As a caveat, I should add that I am probably not an average example of my generation when it comes to human rights. At school, I’ve taken multiple courses on human rights and am involved in student organizations promoting them. This has afforded me the opportunity to have what I believe to be a more formal education on the theories and history of human rights when compared to many of my peers. That being said, I think my views on human rights are developed more as a whole, allowing me to understand more comprehensively what they do actually mean to me.
My belief is that my millennial peers, regardless of having a “formal background” or not, share this expansive and progressive view of human rights. They are constantly willing to redefine how we translate our held values into the right and wrong actions, and to create a society that reflects that.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.