Is it finally time to privatise human rights?
Our society is going through rapid transformations with astronomical leaps in the digital, political, social and cultural world. Human lives are increasingly getting intertwined with the digital, giving rise to many new ways of being and changing the fabric of society. The enmeshment and increasing dependence on the digital bring with it many concerns of access, exploitation, behaviour modifications, privacy violations and exclusion. To add to this uncertain future, our society is going through global unrest with many lives lost daily, either because of political conflict, social conflict, structural oppression or poverty. We are seeing a unilateral rise in authoritarian governments who are increasingly violating their democratic structure and giving majoritarian groups a clean chit to cause violence.
To safeguard human lives against this oppression, our society has a structured set of human rights that define and protect what it means to be human. Human rights discourse, in that essence, has supposedly been a monumental moral achievement of our society. Although, the concept that everyone by the virtue of their humanity is entitled to certain human rights which are not retractable is a fairly new one. However, the idea of human dignity and civil liberties is as old as civilization and has undergone numerous iterations and debates in different eras and different parts of the world. From the Cyrus Cylinder in 539 BC which freed slaves to return home, and declared that people should have a choice in their religion to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which was born out of the French Revolution consolidating a list of “natural and inalienable” rights; the understanding of human rights has extensively evolved. World War 2 acted as a catalyst to enkindle the human rights revolution and engender it in the global conscience. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), in 1948, was presented to the world, acting for the first time as a recognized and internationally accepted charter, whose first article stated that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." The UDHR, though not legally binding, introduces how a government should be treating its citizens and makes it an international issue rather than a domestic issue.
Human Rights have evolved through three generations to come to the current understanding. The first generation of rights defined the civil and political rights of the people which amounted to liberty. The two central ideas encompassing the first generation are those of personal liberty, and of protecting the individuals against violations by the State. They serve to protect the individual from excesses of the State and are considered as negative rights, and include Right to life, freedom of speech, equality before the law, property rights and voting rights. The second generation of rights, based on equality, serve to positively protect individuals from the state. Getting recognition after the second world war, this generation of rights demands the state to ensure the services required for a life of dignity, which include Right to Education, healthcare and the likes. The third generation of rights are based on the principles of fraternity and solidarity and focus on collectives and communities. This generation of rights includes the right to self determination, right to environment resources and others.
Even after the expansion of the human rights discourse, many people are still denied their rights daily. The war in Afghanistan, the struggle of Palestinians, the atrocities in Kashmir, the plight and reduction of minorities and indigenous people to second class citizens, all signal towards the hollowness of Human Rights. Human rights as a concept originated from a western understanding of individuality and were a product of the realpolitik of the time. ‘Faith and dignity in the worth of all persons’ were formulated after World War 2. UDHR was a product of a torn society that laid bare the horror of humanity and the extent to which humans can go in the quest for power and control. Even though a promising concept, the veil of human rights was unfurled to placate the society and give the illusion of building a new world where human lives would be protected. Human rights as a tool were introduced by western states to arguably control other states and hence their implementation was sporadic and carried out in self-interest. The conceptualisation of human rights being inherently selfish was never to respect every human being and make sure they live a life of dignity but to only serve the political reality of the times and those in power making them ephemeral. Oppression and violations have continued under the garb of human rights since, finding easy reasons to justify the atrocities.
The evolution, access and enforcement of human rights are a product of the realpolitik of different times and the people in power decide whose lives are worth protecting and whose are not. Human rights, an intellectually promising concept, are intrinsically flawed in their implementation and are essentially a privilege only afforded by a few. An extension of necropolitics, they are enforced by the state and motivated by geopolitics where some humans are always left behind when we speak about who classifies as human. The global unrest and the rise of authoritarianism and populism in many parts of the world has lifted the veil of senseless hope that everyone has a dignified life. The people who assumed rights would work were people with privilege, who were aware that the state has an interest in protecting them. The people whose humanity was constantly denied were anyway sceptical of the concept. Rising fascism and a global pandemic, for the first time in decades, planted a seed of doubt in the minds of otherwise untouched and sheltered people, about the possibility of their lives also being at stake.
Digital atrocities have been occurring since the digital revolution disproportionately affecting gender, race, caste and other marginalised people. With the pandemic the world exponentially became more digital and put many more people at risk. All this combined, developed the seed of doubt about human rights in many. The discourse about the evolution of human rights to catch up with the ever-changing world has been coming to the forefront. Many human rights activists have mentioned the grave human rights violations that take place in the digital realm. The digital by its nature is a sphere that liberates a lot of groups and individuals through anonymity and dual identity. But the same freedom has created a state of anarchy analogous to the Hobbesian state of nature, where man is a wolf to man. In such a state of nature, the territorial sovereign nation-state has been found to be inept/lacking in extending protection on securing rights for individuals in the increasingly enmeshed digital and physical world. Concerned citizens have raised the need for the fourth generation of human rights, which is all-encompassing and includes newer rights, in line with the changing times, to safeguard human dignity in a new world.
With the discourse moving to the possibility of a 4th generation of rights, we propose the acceptance that the system of human rights has not worked, and propose an alternate system to make sure that they reach far, wide and deep and are not dependent on realpolitik. The ephemeral state of access and enforcement of human rights makes it difficult to rely on this system without any guarantee that they would not be withdrawn at the whims and fancies of state power or mob sentiments. To aid the governments in understanding the contextualised needs of the people and formulating new rights henceforth is the need of the hour. This system, if privatised, can bridge the gaps between big tech, the governments and its people.
Human rights, in theory, essentially are negative and positive. Negative rights protect the civil liberties of humans against others and the state. Whereas positive rights guarantee certain fundamental necessities of citizens to be met by the state. Positive rights include the Right to Water, Right to Education, Right to Clean Air, which is fundamental in many countries but is not enforced universally. The privatisation of these rights makes sure that many have access to it. In polluted cities like Delhi, many individuals buy air purifiers to safeguard their right to clear air. The norm in different societies of buying water purifiers or bottled water enforces the Right to Water for many. Jio, India’s largest 4G network, made it possible for people from the remotest parts of the country to be connected to each other and the internet. It was only possible through a private entity aided by the government, to provide such universal access to every human being in the country. There is clear evidence of services and systems working more efficiently and reaching a greater number of people once privatised. Another example of this is education, private education has surpassed the quality and is known to keep up with the changing world. With the schools being shut down and learning shifted to online media, private schools were quicker to adapt not just to the didactic learning needs of students but an all-encompassing need to shift to this new way of existing. The pandemic also showed us how the governments had to rely on private companies for the timely delivery of vaccines against the Covid-19 pandemic.
Instead of waiting for legislation and policy changes, if we could use our resources to generate human rights for ourselves and friends and family in the private market sphere maybe we are guaranteed to feel more control over our lives. Governance is dynamic and ever-changing, expecting the governments to catch up with the demands of the new world would be time-consuming/dangerous. A private entity that can act as an intermediary between the government, big tech and its people is arguably the best way to move forward which will instinctively aid the governments in their work. The intermediary body, through its business model, will look at citizens as consumers of their rights and provide impeccable customer service. The governments can also rely on this intermediary body to follow its rules and aid with the work. This body will make sure that its consumers never feel helpless with changing governments, political scenarios, or civil unrest. This product will be an exercise in the reclamation of human rights and extracting the relevant value out of a promising concept which has been in inadequate hands for a long time. The consumers finally can go on with their lives knowing that they have concrete protection because they have paid for it. To pay for something with value is to value what you have paid for.
We firmly believe that it’s time to privatise human rights.