Systems Thinking and Human Rights – Circulating Rights, Regenerating Responsibilities, and Regulating against Impunity

human rights day blog post

Systems thinking around human rights is not something new. The 10th of December marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the General Assembly of the United Nations . The year was 1948 when nations and peoples around the world were in a process of rebuilding after the traumas of war and economic collapse. When new technologies and ideas were forcing people to confront the recent past and to work together to articulate a better vision for their shared future.  

The horrors of the past few decades had by 1948 shifted the paradigm of what it meant to be human in the modern world, and what rights and responsibilities states had to their citizens. There was tension within the system right from the start, however. Eight UN member states aligned to the Soviet Union abstained from approving the Universal Declaration, reflecting the competing ideologies at the start of the Cold War era.

Despite the abstentions, the UDHR became a foundational text for the new political and economic system that emerged in the 1940s and the document continues to act as a set of guiding principles for people across the world who focus on human rights. The elegant prose of the opening to the preamble of the declaration which recognises that the “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” still has the power to inspire those of us working in the social impact space.

While huge progress has been made globally since 1948, most of us are still working day to day to support efforts for peace, justice and freedom. Whether debating human rights around the current men’s football World Cup in Qatar or reflecting on social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, it seems that once again we need to shift our thinking around how human rights can support our work toward meaningful social change.  

Complex systems can display surprising behaviours. Changes are non-linear, everything within the system is connected, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and the health of the whole depends on the health of its parts and vice versa. By viewing the global human rights movement in terms of systems thinking, it can help us understand how and where we can make changes that promote the values behind the UDHR in the modern context. To do this we can focus on the three key characteristics of healthy systems: they circulate resources universally, they regenerate constantly, and they self-regulate proactively.

Universal Circulation of Resources

Within the human rights system, the key “resources” that need to be circulated are information and power. In order to do this effectively these key resources need to circulate across all scales of global society. Horizontally to every geographic region of the world, and vertically to every part of society within countries. Right now, this is clearly not happening. Large parts of the world don’t have access to the power and information that would enable them to live their lives in accordance with the principles of the UDHR. Even within areas of the world where this could happen in theory, marginalised social groups are consistently denied their share of these key resources.

In order to circulate power and information both horizontally and vertically, we will need to have a balance of the size of the channels of distribution.  In our current system, power and information are distributed largely via governments and large media and technology companies. To build a healthier human rights system, I believe it is vital that we work together to have a range of channels through which citizens can access power and information, and that these channels are diverse and dynamic enough to evolve to counter new threats, and to maximise the resilience to future deliberate or accidental shocks to the system. By doing this, the human rights system will have a repertoire of responses which are nuanced and robust enough to deal with the challenges it faces in the future.

Constant Regeneration

Healthy systems are ones which can endure. If we want the principles of the UDHR to endure into the 21st century we need to think about how we invest our time and energy in a way that regenerates the ability of the system to counter challenges and continue to adapt.  This means a focus on education and learning at all levels. Educating young people about the rights and responsibilities that come with being human, but also how they can support each other to enact those rights. Educating citizens and policy makers around the risks of repeating past mistakes where rights are eroded or suspended. And importantly, this also means collective learning and the sharing of best practices and lessons learned between governments, organisations, groups and individuals who are at the forefront of promoting human rights.

We also need to look at the institutional architecture of the global human rights movement and consider how we balance the efficiency of having a few big and powerful actors, such as the European Union or the United Nations, against the resilience of having lots of smaller and highly connected actors. The efficiency of having the big players who can mobilise action and resources effectively, and hand them over to other actors, can minimise transaction costs within the system. However, if a big actor is unwilling or unable to act, then the system breaks down. Conversely, having multiple smaller actors such as NGOs and activist movements, enables the system to be more resilient with tasks being able to be carried out by multiple actors in a context specific way. However, this is inefficient in terms of the transaction costs of time, energy, and moral capital that are required to supply these varied and competing organisations.

The global human rights architecture is struggling to keep up with the complexities of 21st century global society. We need to think about how we can balance the efficiency and power of the big actors, with the resilience that comes from empowering and developing newer more agile actors that can address issues in their own contexts. This could mean supporting a few of the largest and most effective human rights NGOs, empowering regional bodies to support the United Nations, or increasing the supply of reliable fact-based information sources in the digital and physical media.

Proactive Self-Regulation

Healthy systems regulate themselves and the environment around them. In the same way that social inequality is bad for both rich and poor, inequalities in the ability of people to live to live in accordance with the rights outlined in the UDHR are bad for them as individuals, but also ultimately, for the regimes or organisations that repress those rights. By extracting the resources of power and information as rights abusers tend to do, this reduces the circulation of those vital resources and can lead to decay and ultimately collapse of the regime. Time and again history has shown us that regimes that practise systemic rights abuses end up collapsing with highly negative and often violent consequences for their leaders.

Instead, we need to work towards a constructive human rights regime, where “good” behaviour is encouraged and rewarded. Divesting from human rights abusing states and supporting comparable states with better human rights records can lead to a virtuous circle of behaviour as citizens and leaders realise that by empowering their people they can gain tangible benefits in prestige, popularity and human development. To do this, advocates for human rights and architects of the future human rights system need to be clear, consistent, and contextual in their approach. A failure to follow this principle can lead to an alternative vicious circle where rights abusers continue their behaviour with impunity, which in turn gives succour and encouragement to like minded regimes. Designing and developing the system so that policies in line with the UDHR bring benefit to policy makers is a method of healthy self-regulation. 

For those of us who care about human rights, and still value the power and vision behind the principles outlined in the UDHR, there is much for us to do. We are entering another era of tension between states, of competing political and economic ideologies, and rapidly developing new technologies that can simultaneously enhance and limit our rights. The world is changing quickly in unpredictable ways, and new voices across the globe are demanding that systems be updated to support their aims and ideals. By considering human rights through the lens of systems thinking, I believe we can renew and refresh the principles behind the Universal Declaration and help strengthen the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in the world.