For the past two months, I've been part of the digital strategy team for The Elders, an extraordinary NGO that was launched last year by Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel. The vision is to convene a council of elders for the global village; the founding elders include Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mary Robinson and Kofi Annan.
As part of this work, I've been supporting the web team for Every Human Has Rights, a campaign to spread awareness and support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year is the sixtieth anniversary of UDHR, and being part of its celebration is a wonderful echo of one of the first pieces of work I did as a grad student at Harvard, thirteen years ago. (Ouch!) At that time I was a research assistant for Andrew Moravcsik, helping him research an article on international human rights regimes (PDF) that he published in time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the UDHR.
Moravcsik's article focused particularly on the creation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), which, unlike the UNDHR, was designed to be an enforceable document that would give individuals the legal standing to pursue human rights issues in an international court of law. What the ECHR advanced was the idea of personal, individual-level responsibility for human rights advocacy; what it lost was the boldness and breadth of vision of the UDHR.
The EHHR project recognizes that online networks provide a way to have your human rights cake, and eat it too. EHHR is focusing on each of the core themes of the UN Declaration, a sweeping document that addresses basic rights in areas from religion to employement, and from freedom of expression to healthcare. But by asking people around the world to sign on personally — over the web — as supporters of that Declaration, it's reawakening the idea that each and every one of us has a role to play in supporting human rights.
And that role doesn't need to be limited to a courtroom. One of the key partners on the EHHR project is Witness, an online NGO that uses video and web technology to tackle human rights abuses around the world. Through EHHR and Witness's user-driven site, The Hub, anyone in the world can be an active advocate for human rights — a personal witness — by contributing a video or online story.
EHHR and Witness are just two pieces of a large and growing online ecosystem for supporting human rights worldwide. Global Voices Online gathers bloggers from around the world, including many who are writing under adverse — even life-threatening — conditions in their home countries. Ushahidi and the Tunisian Prison Map are putting human rights abuses in Kenya and Tunisia on the map (literally). The Martus project provides digital security tools to protect the effectiveness and safety of people working on the front lines of human rights protection.
The growing online human rights ecosystem of which EHHR is a part didn't exist when Moravcsik wrote his article. At the time, the courts were the best option — really, the only meaningful option — for individuals to engage in the public sphere of human rights. What made that interesting to Moravcsik was the way that human rights agreements allowed governments to dig themselves into structural commitments to human rights, with citizens serving as the hypothetical watchdogs.
Today there's a whole new set of tools to give those hypothetical watchdogs real teeth. But now, citizens don't have to wait to be invited into that role, nor do they have to find their way into a courtroom. They just have to pick up a cell phone, a camera, or a keyboard, and they can hold human rights violations accountable in the court of global public opinion.
The technologies are all there….all that's missing is the recognition of meaningful personal accountability for human rights. That's what EHHR puts back in the picture, by asking and every one of us to sign a personal commitment to the bold vision the UN set forth sixty years ago.
Of course, when the Declaration was written, most UN members would not have envisioned a world in which access to global communications could be virtually universal. Now that we have it, it's time to make human rights universal, too.