Saturday, February 19, 2011

Universal Declaration of Human Rights & People's Freedom

With events continuing to unfold in the “Near East” (see footnote) and the near West of Wisconsin memes on freedom and rights are running through people’s minds and a topic at the dinner table. One thought that I’ve seen in the discussion of communication rights. The idea is that when Mubarak’s people cut off internet access violated it Egyptian people's “human rights” (see The conservative view on this issues was expressed by Martin Cothran this way:
“What does it mean to say that Internet access a right? What is a right? And what is a human right?
It can only mean one of two things to say that something is a right. A right is either legal or metaphysical. If it is legal, then there ought to be some kind basis for it in a written statute or in some kind of case law. If it is a metaphysical right, then it ought to have some kind of rational or revelatory basis.”
The article went on to argue for the absence of legal rights and the vapor of the metaphysical. More progressive minds pointed out some basis in written statutes including treaties ratified by the Egyptian government and international conventions assented to by the Egyptian government and by the community of nations more broadly. I was surprised to later hear this articulated as in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is not a document I’m very familiar with, but it did it came up in a surprising way at a recent conference on public science. Alaa Ibrahim, Founder, Cairo Science Festival, was talking about his successful efforts to build public support for science in Egypt. He quickly made 2 points. One was that this new public science community was very active in the recent protests in Tahrir Square, providing evidence that progressive movement on one front organically helps with progressive movements on other fronts. This demonstrates the democratic value of people understanding policy issues like “free” internet access with potential consequences down the road. As he said it is all about human freedom and on that note he turned to the other point. This was Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This article specifies that:
“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”
Very nice generally statement which I instantiated with “Twitter and the Internet” are social benefits of scientific advancement. The thought sent me looking to the history of this and a related Article 25 (regarding health and medical care). The wisdom of these apparently reflects a hard-won consensus achieved in the late 40s by Eleanor Roosevelt at the formative conference setting up the UN. Apparently there was early agreement that scientists deserve freedom in their work but the initial elitist tone of Article 27 was later modified by adding that the general public (everyone) should share in its benefits. Taken together these 2 articles (25 and 27) supplied important normative guidelines for human rights and public health policy, another topic in the air these days with conservatives attacking Planned Parenthood etc. The question of whether health-related rights should depend on state and/or private sponsorship was left open in the UN declaration and now the argument is front and center in consciousness again. I haven’t read it, but I did find a reference to a book by Richard Pierre Claude called “Science in the Service of Human Rights”, which further discussed the dichotomy between the public need for protection of scientific freedom and some regulation of progress to equitably distribute its benefits. But here we quickly fall into the issue of what is considered a benefit. Is birth control advice a benefit, a right? A topic for another time. We could probably use Eleanor Roosevelt’s wisdom on these issues.
Wikipedia Footnote: The Near East is a geographical term that covers different countries for archeologists and historians, on the one hand, and for political scientists, economists, and journalists, on the other. The term originally applied to the Balkan states in Eastern Europe, but now generally describes the countries of Western Asia between the Mediterranean Sea and Iran, especially in historical contexts.
The term, as used by Western archaeologists, geographers, and historians, refers to the region encompassing Anatolia (the Asian portion of modern Turkey), the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Cyprus, Israel and the Palestinian territories), Mesopotamia (Iraq) and, occasionally, Transcaucasia (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). In modern political and journalistic contexts, this region is usually subsumed into the wider Middle East…..


Vincent said...

I notice Egypt isn't included in either of those terms.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

There is a WaPo article on Arlington VA's Cafe Scientifique where experts explain science to citizens see

Gary Berg-Cross said...

To answer Vincent's question - Egypt is often referred to in the context of the Near East (or Near Eastern Countries) as "Egypt and the Ancient Near East".

Below is text for how refers to it and you can see there map of the area at:

The US State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs has specific diplomatic relations with a group of countries located in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula of Asia. In political circles it is often called the Near East, and all countries within the political region are indicated.