Reflections on Human Rights Day: The University, Its Human Rights Obligations, and the U.N. “Stand Up for Someone’s Rights! Campaign

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To mark that anniversary, in 1950 the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 423 (V) (4 December 1950), inviting all States and interested organizations to observe 10 December of each year as Human Rights Day. To observe this celebration, President Obama proclaimed “December 10, 2016, as Human Rights Day and the week beginning December 10, 2016, as Human Rights Week. I call upon the people of the United States to mark these observances with appropriate ceremonies and activities.” (Presidential Proclamation 9 Dec. 2016).

As has been the recent practice, for this year the United Nations adopted a specific theme and initiated a campaign: “Stand Up For Someone’s Rights!” The Campaign is structured around the power of individual agency in protecting the human rights of others against individuals and institutions. The Campaign explains:

The time for this is now. “We the peoples” can take a stand for rights. And together, we can take a stand for more humanity. It starts with each of us. Step forward and defend the rights of a refugee or migrant, a person with disabilities, an LGBT person, a woman, a child, indigenous peoples, a minority group, or anyone else at risk of discrimination or violence. (Campaign website HERE).

My observations about the 2016 Human Rights Day observation in the context of this campaign can be accessed HERE.

While it is fairly common to think about human rights in terms of the normative rights embedded in and forming part of the autonomous human person, and perhaps also of the resulting obligations of institutional actors–states, enterprises, religious institutions, and others to protect them, one rarely thinks of the university in this regard. Yet universities, like other institutions, have duties and responsibilities to protect and respect human rights to the same extent as other institutions–and perhaps more so in cases where the university is itself an instrumentality of the state. To fail to embed human rights within university administration violates not just law but likely the ethical and corporate responsibility that many universities have loudly proclaimed for their own.

This post considers some of the consequences for universities of undertaking an appropriate level of responsibility for human rights in its operation. I have little illusion that universities will actually pay attention to their responsibility; like other corporate entities, they tend to respond either to the lash of law or to the preferences of the stakeholders on which they are most dependent (students as consumers of its services; employers as consumers of its product (students); and alumni as providers of resources to maintain reputation status). It is perhaps to them, then, that this point is directed.
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