Human and Non-Human Rights — Convergence or Conflict?

Human and Non-Human Rights — Convergence or Conflict?
Photo by Jay Mantri on Unsplash

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Most reflections on this milestone are likely to sound a sombre note, dwelling on the many challenges faced by those championing human rights in an increasingly hostile political climate. This focus on present challenges, however, deters thinking on the complexity of a human rights “future,” one in which we humans may no longer claim an exclusive (or even privileged) position in rights-based struggles. A new group of “rights-holders” is emerging, and mimicking the human rights approach of combining public mobilization with claims for privileged legal protection. International coalitions are forming to advance the rights of non-humans, specifically the rights of nature, and of non-human species, and the question looms of what rights to grant artificial forms of intelligent being.

Human rights advocates will soon face a fundamental question: is their emancipatory project and vision of a better world — captured so inspiringly in the UDHR’s 30 articles — necessarily anthropocentric? Or can it accommodate non-human rights, and will doing so advance or impede their cause?

On the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, claims to recognize non-human rights are advancing and pose challenges to the anthropocentrism at the heart of the human rights movement.

The rights of nature are explicitly proclaimed in the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador, in many local laws in different countries (including the US), and have been recognized by courts in India and Colombia. The link between a healthy environment and human rights is not new. Dozens of constitutions recognize the human right to a healthy environment, and there is pressure for the UN to do so explicitly. The claim for nature’s rights is different, however. It is grounded not in human-based needs, but in a loftier claim that nature itself has preservation rights over and above any impact denying them may have on humans. Recognizing nature’s rights, it is argued, is the only way to disrupt the existing paradigm that treats nature as “property,” thereby permitting its exploitation. An international coalition has launched to fight at local, national, and global levels to expand legal recognition of the rights of nature.

Like the claim for nature’s rights, the argument for recognizing the rights of non-human species is based on the claim that an existing paradigm — that of animal welfare prescribing humane treatment — is insufficient. Advances in biology prove many animals are much more like humans than we’ve acknowledged to date. Chimpanzees, for example, are cognitively complex, autonomous, and self-conscious, capable of a range of emotions, of moral agency, and of suffering in ways similar to humans. Drawing on the experience of other groups once denied legal personhood (e.g. women, slaves), lawyers in the US are arguing that imprisoned chimpanzees have a right to liberty, and are attempting to use habeas corpus petitions to see it enforced. They haven’t yet succeeded, but the seriousness of the effort, and of the legal arguments underlying it, suggest they soon might, following courts in Argentina (and perhaps India) that have recognized the legal personhood of animals.

Soon to join the queue for rights-bearing status will be artificial forms of intelligent being. The intriguing question of robotic rights is moving from science fiction trope to real-world dispute. A recent proposal by the European Parliament that robots should “have the status of electronic persons,” prompted an open letter signed by over 250 scientists, ethicists, and others arguing against such a step. We’ve all empathized with the doomed but fictional robots of Blade Runner. Yet, one can envision a not-too-distant scenario where real disputes will arise as to who (if anyone) has the right to erase an artificial intelligence that shows the capacity for self-awareness.

The ethical issues underlying these developments are hardly novel. Animal rights, the protection of “mother Earth,” robots’ moral universe — all have long been subject to philosophical debate and fictionalized for popular consumption. What is new is the degree to which the rights claim in each area is being framed in relation to human rights. The explicit argument is that just as non-person humans (e.g., women or slaves) won personhood and therefore rights, so should non-human “persons.” And why not? If corporations are “persons” and can claim rights to free expression, who can say with confidence the chimpanzees claim for liberty is beyond reason? Framed in this way, it poses a direct challenge to human rights advocates as to whether they wish to widen the privileged class of rights-holders beyond humans, or not?

There are obvious risks. Recognizing new, non-human, rights-holders is controversial and may diminish the respect given to all rights-based claims, even as it diverts attention from the many unfinished struggles for human freedom. Privileging nature and other animals, alongside humans, is bound to lead to conflicting and even unresolvable rights claims in a world of increasing food and resource scarcity. Talk of robot rights seems a dangerous distraction when the real task is to rein in artificial intelligence technology so that it doesn’t exacerbate existing inequalities and discrimination.

Yet, there may also be advantages of such a widening — indeed, recognizing non-human rights may be the best means of saving our own. What is the point, one might well ask, of securing universal political freedom if it becomes impossible to exercise it for billons trapped in degraded and uninhabitable environments? The claim to free chimpanzees speaks to a deep empathy and broadened moral concern to end suffering that should buttress, not undermine, the human rights project. Finally, if we thought self-aware forms of artificial intelligence might have rights, perhaps we would be much more careful in its (their?) development and deployment.

Today, after 70 years, there’s no doubt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still relevant and necessary. But if the movement the UDHR inspired cannot reconcile itself to non-human rights-holders, on its 100th anniversary it may seem increasingly anachronistic.

David Petrasek is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, and Senior Editor at OpenGlobalRights. This article first appeared on 10 December 2018 on OpenGlobalRights.

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