What does it mean to be human? That question sits at the core of human rights. To be human has specific implications: human self-awareness and the actions taken to uphold human dignity – these are what gives the concept of humanity a special meaning.
Human self-awareness and human actions determine the interplay between individual thought and language and the wider society. It is our actions as humans that deliver economic security, the right to education, the right to free association and free expression; and which create the conditions for protecting expression and encouraging bold thinking. When we abandon efforts to uphold human dignity, we forfeit the essential meaning of being human, and when we waver in our commitment to the idea of human rights, we abandon our moral principles. What follows is duplicity and folly, corruption and tyranny, and the endless stream of humanitarian crises that we see in the world today.
More than two centuries have passed since the concept of human rights was first developed. During that time humanity has gone through various stages of history and the world has seen enormous changes. In Europe, what was once a collection of colonialist, autocratic states has transformed into a democratic society with a capitalist orientation, establishing a mechanism that protects individual rights. Other societies are also seeing structural changes, and the concept of human rights is facing grave challenges.
In part these challenges stem from the disparate demands of countries in different stages of development, with contrasting economic situations and competing interests. But challenges also come from divergent conceptions and understandings of human rights, human dignity, morality and responsibility, and from different interpretations and applications of the core principles of human rights. In the contemporary world, as our grasp of the fundamental values and principles of human rights and humanitarianism weakens, we risk losing our rights, responsibilities and our power to uphold human dignity.
History shows that a moral failure is always accompanied by painful realities, visible everywhere. The global refugee crisis is worsening daily, and 70 million refugees have been forced to leave their homes by war and poverty. Our living environment is constantly being degraded, and the ecological balance is ever more fragile. Armed conflicts persist and potential political crises lurk; regional instabilities grow more acute; autocratic regimes brutally impose their will, while democratic governance is in decline. Unreasoning and unrestrained expansion under a nationalist, capitalist order is exacerbating the global gap between rich and poor. Our views of the world have become more divided and more conflicted than ever.
Individuals in many countries and regions lack the opportunity to receive an education, to access information or communicate freely. They have no chance to exercise their imagination and creativity or fulfil their ideals; no chance to enjoy freedom of belief and freedom of association. Such rights and freedoms pose a fatal threat to autocracy and authoritarianism. This is why, in so many places, lawyers have been imprisoned, journalists have been disappeared and murdered, why censorship has become so pervasive, why religious and non-governmental organisations have been ruthlessly suppressed. Today, dictatorships and corrupt regimes continue to benefit from reckless arms sales, and enjoy the quiet support of capitalist nations. Religious divisions, ethnic contradictions and regional disputes all feed into primitive power plays. Their logic is simple: to weaken individual freedoms and strengthen the controls imposed by governments and dominant elites.
The end result is that individuals are deprived of the right to live, denied freedom from fear, and freedom of expression, or denied the rights to maintain their living environment and develop.
The concept of human rights needs to be revised. Discussions of human rights used to focus on the one-dimensional relationship between the state’s rights and individual rights, but now human rights involve a variety of relationships. Today, whether demands are framed in terms of the rights of the individual or the goals pursued by political entities and interest groups, none of these agendas exists in isolation. Historically, the conditions governing human existence have never been more globally interdependent.
The right of children to grow up and be educated, the right of women to receive protection, the right to conserve nature, the right to survival of other lives intimately connected with the survival of the human race – all these have now become major elements in the concept of human rights. As science and technology develop, authoritarian states invade privacy and limit personal freedom in the name of counter-terrorism and maintaining stability, intensifying psychological manipulation at all levels. Through control of the internet and command of facial recognition technology, authoritarian states tighten their grip on people’s thoughts and actions, threatening and even eliminating freedoms and political rights. Similar kinds of controls are being imposed to varying degrees within the global context. From this we can see that under these new conditions human rights have not gained a common understanding, and if discussion of human rights becomes narrow and shortsighted, it is bound to become nothing more than outdated, empty talk.
Today, Europe, the US, Russia, China and other governments manufacture, possess and sell arms. Pontificating about human rights is simply self-deluding if we fail to curb the dangerous practices that make armed conflict all the more likely. Likewise, if no limits are placed on capitalist global expansion and the pervasive penetration of capital power, if there is no effort to curb the sustained assault by authoritarian governments on natural human impulses, a discussion of human rights is just idle chatter. Such a blatant abdication of responsibility can lead to no good outcome.
Human rights are shared values. Human rights are our common possession. When abuses are committed against anyone in any society, the dignity of humanity as a whole is compromised. By the same token, it is only when the rights of any individual and rights of the people of any region receive our care and protection that humanity can achieve a shared redemption.
Such is the principle of human rights, in all its stark simplicity. But a shared understanding of that truth still eludes us. Why so? Could it be that we are too selfish, too benighted, too lacking in courage? Or, perhaps, we are insincere, we don’t really love life enough: we con ourselves into imagining we can get away without discharging our obligation to institute fairness and justice, we fool ourselves into thinking that chaos is acceptable, we entertain the idea that the world may well collapse in ruin, all hopes and dreams shattered.
If we truly believe in values that we can all identify with and aspire to – a recognition of truth, an understanding of science, an appreciation of the self, a respect for life and a faith in society – then we need to eliminate obstacles to understanding, uphold the fundamental definition of humanity, affirm the shared value of human lives and other lives, and acknowledge the symbiotic interdependency of human beings and the environment. A belief in ourselves and a belief in others, a trust in humanitarianism’s power to do good, and an earnest recognition of the value of life – these form the foundation for all human values and all human efforts.
• Ai Weiwei is a leading contemporary artist, activist and advocate of political reform in China
In these critical times …
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