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Human Rights at 70

Eleanor Roosevelt holds up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), New York, 1948.  © United Nations Photo/Flickr

This month we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To mark the occasion, we have asked Human Rights Watch experts to reflect on some of the key human rights challenges in their area of specialty.

You Should Be Worrying about the Woman Shortage
by Heather Barr

Women hold children's' hands as they wait to cross a street after school in downtown Shanghai September 12, 2014. © 2014 Reuters

In the 80s and 90s, Newsweek Magazine delivered US women the cheery news that they were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to find a husband after age 40. There were too many women—supposedly—and not enough men, and women were the losers. And, of course, staying single was a horrible fate.

The World Health Organization says the natural sex ratio at birth is about 105 boys to every 100 girls and its best to have equal numbers of men and women in a society. You need a few extra boys for balance, because men die earlier.

We are learning right now what happens when the sex ratio becomes wildly out of whack, through a huge unintended experiment. In the world’s two most populated countries—China and India—there is a serious woman shortage.

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Can Algorithms Save Us from Human Error?
by Dinah PoKempner

Sophia the Robot, Chief Humanoid, Hanson Robotics & SingularityNET, on the Centre Stage during the opening day of Web Summit 2017 at Altice Arena in Lisbon Stephen McCarthy/Creative Commons

There’s plenty of evidence that human judgment can be clouded by human emotions, prejudices, or even low blood sugar—and that this can have dire consequences for respect of human rights.

For centuries, law has taken this into account, posing standards such as the “reasonable” man (or woman), or making allowances for diminished capacity. Research into cognitive bias is booming.

For this reason, many cheer our increasing reliance on big data and algorithms to aid or even replace predictive human decision-making.Machine learning tools may discern and learn from patterns in massive data that the human mind cannot process. Perhaps safer self-driving cars, more accurate medical diagnoses, or even better military strategy will result, and this could save many lives.

But this superior computational power could come at profound cost in the years ahead...

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Atrocities as the New Normal
by Philippie Bolopion

Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed-wire fence in the “no-man’s land” border zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh, April 25, 2018. © 2018 Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

There is no more daunting challenge for the human rights movement than trying to spare civilians from the litany of abuses associated with the raging conflicts of our time, those that are claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and causing millions to flee across international borders. Where there once was outrage and demands for action, complacency has set in. How did it come to this?

For a while, the world seemed determined to put an end to the most horrendous crimes facing humanity. Buoyed by the end of the Cold War, outraged by the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, a global movement was born in the new millennium with a powerful rallying cry, echoing that of Holocaust survivors: never again. Its ideas were radical at the time: no government was to hide behind its sovereignty to massacre its own people and no head of state was to stand above the law.

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As China’s Grip Tightens, Global Institutions Gasp
by Sophie Richardson

Presiden Republik Rakyat Tiongkok Xi Jinping menyampaikan pidato di Palais des Nations di Perserikatan Bangsa-bangsa di Jenewa, 18 Januari 2017.  © 2017 Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Four decades into Beijing’s so-called “reform and opening” era, Chinese authorities are progressively less tolerant at home of critical views or political participation. 

But people outside China don’t yet seem to realize that their human rights are also increasingly under threat as Beijing becomes more powerful.

In the 1990s and 2000s, China’s goal was largely to insulate itself from criticism in key United Nations forums.  But in recent years, Beijing has also sought to extend its influence into, and impose its standards and policies on, key international human rights institutions—weakening some of the only means of accountability and justice available to people around the world. 

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Living Longer, Locked Away: Helping Older People Stay Connected, and at Home
by Bethany Brown

© 2009 iStock/Getty Images

We are living longer than ever. Experts estimate that over one-third of all babies born in wealthy countries in 2012 will live to celebrate their 100th birthday. Life expectancy in every region is increasing. The United Nations calculates that in Asia, where most older people in the world live, nearly 30 years have been added to life expectancy over the past few decades. Africa is projected to experience the same by 2050.

Such a societal shift forces us to consider what it means to live an independent, dignified life as an older person. Should our enjoyment of fundamental human rights diminish with age?  The answer is, “no.”

Older people have the right to live independently in their communities on an equal basis with everyone else, with support if necessary. But right now, ageism, or discrimination against people based on their age, persists across societies and often drives policy decisions that undermine human rights.

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Caught in the Middle: Convincing “Middle Powers” to Fight Autocrats Despite High Costs
by Farida Deif

Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, attends a bilateral meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in the Executive Suite at UN Headquarters in New York. © 2018 Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

In a stifling political climate dominated by thin-skinned autocrats, governments that criticize another country’s human rights record risk paying an increasingly heavy price.

In August, a routine tweet by Canada’s Foreign Ministry calling for the release of Saudi women’s rights defenders triggered a full-blown diplomatic crisis, with Saudi Arabia retaliating by expelling Canada’s ambassador in Riyadh and freezing all new bilateral trade and investments.

The Saudi reaction should alarm rights-respecting governments as well as the human rights movement. Today, repressive governments like Saudi Arabia not only brutally silence their own human rights defenders, but aggressively try to muzzle other countries’ criticism of their abusive actions.

A key challenge for the human rights movement today is convincing so-called middle powers—states that don’t command the international stage, yet still play significant roles on it to promote human rights as a central element of their foreign policy despite the potentially high political and economic costs.

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Social Media’s Moral Reckoning
by Cynthia M. Wong

 Facebook's logo is seen on an android mobile phone. © 2018 Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

If Facebook were a country, it would be the largest in the world, with over 2 billion users. It would also be ruled by an opaque, unaccountable, and undemocratic regime. Social media has become the modern public square, which is run by unseen corporate algorithms that can manipulate our access to information and even our mood. Social media firms police our speech and behavior based on a set of byzantine rules where companies are judge and jury. And they track our every digital move across the Web and monetize the insights they glean from our data, often in unforeseen ways.

Though the internet has in many ways been a boon to the human rights movement, we have come a long way from the heady days of “Twitter and Facebook revolution” during the 2011 Arab uprising. Trust in Silicon Valley has sunk to an all-time low as the public begins to fully grasp the power we have traded away in exchange for access to seemingly free services.

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