Human Rights: Yardstick for Just Societies for Future Generations: Address to SPM College 8th December, 2021 Published on: 08 Dec, 2021


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Human Rights: Yardstick for Just Societies for Future Generations


Prof Sadhana Sharma, Dr Amna, Dr Chahal and distinguished Faculty and students of this illustrious college. I have a special and emotional sense of connect with SPM College because when I first came to Delhi to study in St Stephens in 1975, my local guardian, Dr Kamla Sanghi, was for many years the Principal of SPM College. There was, in her, a particularly strong sense of nationalistic ideals and character which I understand are the foundational tenets of your college.

A very broad definition of human rights is, ‘Rights, are those conditions of social life without which no person can seek, in general, to be themselves at their best’. In simple terms, rights are the basic conditions of man’s good life, which are recognized as such by the legal code of the society and State to which that individual belongs.

The philosophy of human rights addresses questions about the existence, content, nature, universality and justification of human rights. Human rights are international moral and legal norms that aspire to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal and social abuses. At a preliminary level, Examples of human rights are the right to freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial when charged with a crime, the right to work, the right to engage in political activity and so on.

These rights exist in morality and in law at the national and international levels. They are addressed primar­ily to the governments, requiring compliance and enforcement. The events preceding and during World War II, especially the barbaric discrimination and extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany, prompted the victorious countries to assemble a forum, firstly to deal with some of the consequences of war, but foremost to help provide a way to prevent such appalling events in the future. This forum was what we know as the United Nations. The founders of the UN thus responded to the horrors of World War II by emphasizing human rights in its very Charter. The Charter of the United Nations was signed on 26 June 1945. It states that the main objective of the new organization is ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ and ‘to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights’ Article 1 of the Charter states that one of the aims of the United Nations is to achieve international cooperation in ‘promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’.

The main source of the contemporary conception of human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the UN General Assembly and enshrines the rights and freedoms of all human beings in 1948.

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, therefore,

The General Assembly,

Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction. 



Article 1

Right to Equality

Article 2

Freedom from Discrimination

Article 3

Right to Life, Liberty, Personal Security

Article 4

Freedom from Slavery

Article 5

Freedom from Torture and Degrading Treatment

Article 6

Right to Recognition as a Person before the Law

Article 7

Right to Equality before the Law

Article 8

Right to Remedy by Competent Tribunal

Article 9

Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Exile

Article 10

Right to Fair Public Hearing

Article 11

Right to be Considered Innocent until Proven Guilty

Article 12

Freedom from Interference with Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence

Article 13

Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country

Article 14

Right to Asylum in other Countries from Persecution

Article 15

Right to a Nationality and the Freedom to Change It

Article 16

Right to Marriage and Family

Article 17

Right to Own Property

Article 18

Freedom of Belief and Religion

Article 19

Freedom of Opinion and Information

Article 20

Right of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Article 21

Right to Participate in Government and in Free Elections

Article 22

Right to Social Security

Article 23

Right to Desirable Work and to Join Trade Unions

Article 24

Right to Rest and Leisure

Article 25

Right to Adequate Living Standard

Article 26

Right to Education

Article 27

Right to Participate in the Cultural Life of Community

Article 28

Right to a Social Order that Articulates this Document

Article 29

Community Duties Essential to Free and Full Development

Article 30

Freedom from State or Personal Interference in the above Rights


Of these in my view, Article 3 is the most crucial: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person,” because all other rights are derivatives of this fundamental right. Life, liberty and security if assured, encouraged and provided for can ensure our basic dignity and peaceful existence enabling us to lead a happy life.

This leads us to the question: What should be the yardstick for human rights for societies in the future?

As we grow in automation and an increasingly inter-connected world, with the advent of AI and machine learning, we need to augment the scope of human rights. On the one hand technology is becoming so intrusive and all-pervasive that to live with dignity, to be able to maintain our life, liberty and security we need to have special measures and mandated to have balance and a peaceful world, on the other hand, technology has created a digital divide by which a substantial part of the population does not have internet connectivity and the devices to connect with the rest of the world. This digital divide prevents people from obtaining a level playing field and the gap between the digital haves and the digital have nots becomes wider. It also prevents them from realizing their full potential because the digital world is wiping out jobs without necessarily educating vast chunks of population, thus leaving those at the bottom of the pyramid suffering a double whammy – they cannot afford computers, they do not have internet connectivity and also their traditional jobs are on the threshold of disappearing, even while there are already powerful companies who can seamlessly profit by exploiting them as mere data points for their data-engineering exercises which help to further bolster their command over the economy. Today, the FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google), a term used by CNBC’s Jim Cramer who said these companies have total domination of their markets, has a market capitalization of 7.1 trillion dollars which is twice the GDP of India. That these companies can manipulate markets, mould perceptions and topple governments has an implication for human rights because ultimately human rights can only survive in an environment of economic and political freedom. Another point related to the digital economy is the need to protect the individual from becoming a data guinea pig where their details are being ripped open, extracted and experimented with to create marketing and business development tools. Governments have a role to play in safeguarding the rights of the unknowing citizen.

So, digital access, digital privacy, digital security or the secure handling of digital data is important. The global levying of basic tax on these companies is a step in the right direction. Monetization of data is also important. If Google, for instance, captures all historical monuments in India and puts them out in Google Culture for the world to see, it is good while our monuments are being promoted. But, if tomorrow, using artificial intelligence and virtual reality and suppose 3-D were to become as basic as mobile phones, then if they ever began to monetize either directly or through advertisements, then such revenues should be shared with countries to which those pictures belonged. Therefore, the Right to Digital Access and the Right to Basic Digital Privacy should become another universal human right.

The right to live with dignity has to be reiterated in the context of the fact that Nature has created us in different shapes and forms. The LGBTQ are not products of a wilful deviation from societal norms, nor are they in conflict with the basic tenets of governance and the state. Then why not accept this natural fact universally? LGBTQ rights should therefore become universal human rights.

Just as we have the right to live, we should also have the right to end our lives. As of now, a terminally ill patient cannot end their lives. This causes endless suffering, hospitals to be choked and great individual distress. There should be guiding principles that allow a person who is terminally ill and without suitable assistance to be able to seek the end of their lives or be administered euthanasia. I remember reading about an Australian who decided to go to Switzerland for this. He listened to his favorite music, had a glass of beer before getting injected and sent to eternal peace.

Gender equality is another topic that needs global attention. We are still far, as a society, from believing and embracing women as equals except in the home, where of course, it is men who get marginalized. In workplaces we have to universally recognize their competencies as multi-taskers, ensure that they get equal pay and equal political representation. In this context of women, the subject of global trafficking of women needs greater attention.

Lastly, the need for free speech and the curbing of attacks on journalists and those who speak against a government in power too have to be addressed universally. Ever so often, one hears of arm-twisting of media houses, big businesses buying out media channels, journalists being harassed until they become as gently as purring kittens. These are often connected with the politicization of patriotic upsurges, exploited to deal out a dangerous cocktail of hate and what is referred to as nationalism.

And finally, the special rights of the scheduled tribes, the scheduled castes and the disabled. They have to be recognized as deserving special treatment and others cannot be equated with them. There is a paradox here. While casteism is bad, they still need caste based quotas to level up with the others.  While quota is needed for them and should be their right, to expand the quota system to others is ultimately deleterious to their special interest and rights. STs are the most deprived: education levels are 15-20 % lower than that of the general population and even economic levels are very low. Even today we have cases of exploitation and discrimination. Of people not being able to till their land because it once belonged to the state and others do not like their being given that land and are threatening them with the use of force. Even today we come across reports of Dalits beign prevented from carrying out marriage processions, of Dalit grooms being asked not to ride a horse, of Dalits being prevented from visiting local temples. This is indeed a matter of societal concern and needs to be redressed.

One must also remember that while human rights are universal, universality should not be confused with uniformity as long as the basic principles of universality are not denied. In as much as special communities have their own customs and traditions which must be respected the State too has its obligations towards other communities and citizens which need to be respected. Unless there are adequate resources with the state it cannot accomplish the furnishing of basic human rights like justice, rations, law enforcement and property rights. A fine balance between human rights and citizen rights, between rights and the state is the key to peaceful and happy coexistence. When it comes to deciding which is correct – the right of the individual and community or the law of the land, I feel that there cannot be any uniform rule. Take for instance the case of the Sabarimala Temple and its refusal to let women enter to worship. My take is that this is best left to the temple to decide. At best the local panchayat or the local  zila panchayat was best suited to decide this point, not the Supreme Court of India or the Government of India. If however, a local female worshipper were to prove beyond doubt that they had been worshipping the diety for years and had begun to feel discriminated and injured because of their inability to worship, then the case needed to be looked differently. Take another example – that of the scheduled tribes who are forest dwellers and have historically and culturally brewed their own liquor. Since this is in conflict with the excise laws should that cultural practice be prohibited. My take is that since a tribal’s brewing of their own liquor does not conflict with the peace and existence of the rest of society their law should prevail over the uniform law of the land.

We have to remain sensitive towards protection of human rights. Indifference is neglect. I quote Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor addressing President Clinton in 1999 talking about ‘The Perils of Indifference:’

Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.

Lastly, on the subject of human rights I quote from Goswami Tulsidas: Siya ram main sab jag jaani, karuh pranam jori yug paani. All living beings are manifestations of the divine and I bow my head to them in respect.

I thank you all.




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