The Perpetual Evolution of Human Rights

Min Cheong

Mr Richard Magnus addressing the audience at MARUAH's Human Rights Day event.

Since its theoretical conception far back in history, modern philosophical prevalence during the Age of Enlightenment and subsequent politicisation in the 1900s, the notion and application of Human Rights has been framed disparately time and again as a result of varying interpretations.

The conflict between the myriad of iterations engendered eminent scholarly discourse, public policy debates as well as course-shifting civil wars; all of which implied a need for some semblance of a global socio-political agreement as to what Human Rights should espouse.

That consensus arrived in the form of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), enshrining the tenet as one that was not just universally shared but also formally/legally expressed.

However, existing as a working exposition for Human Rights, the UNDHR document encapsulated a tacit acknowledgement that the collective understanding of what the term entailed would continue to evolve with the passage of experience and should be constantly redefined for the greater good, and it was with this sense of ideological exploration that Human Rights Day (10th December) was commemorated in Singapore last Saturday.

MARUAH, the Singapore-based Regional Working Group committed to developing an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, construed its celebratory event around the theme “What does Human Rights mean to me?”

Held at BluJaz Café along Bali Lane, the function highlighted a selection of poetry entries written as part of a MARUAH-organised contest to reflect the prescribed Human Rights Day motif (“What does Human Rights mean to me?”) and also featured an open-mic segment for members of the public in attendance to share their sentiments on the topic.

Gracing the event as Guest-of-Honour was former Senior District Judge, Mr Richard Magnus, who currently serves as the local representative to the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

In his speech to the audience, he afforded his personal views on Human Rights and the philosophy of being.

Mr Magnus’ rhetoric placed particular emphasis upon empathy as well as the notion of human flourishing (Eudaimonia), a ideology which formed the basis of Aristotelian ethics; one that encourages the rational use of talents and abilities to freely pursue self-actualisation for fulfilment and happiness.

Contextualising his observations, he expressed his concerns about the conventional rights-based approach towards Human Rights, saying that he believed Human Rights should be viewed more holistically – from the perspectives of cultivating humanity (becoming true global citizens through nurturing empathy), identity politics (fostering public engagement on issues of interest) and human flourishing (moral growth).

Mr Magnus went further in expounding upon the canon of moral growth to list three elements of human flourishing – the capacity to see the self as a human being who is inextricably linked to other individuals and the universal human experience, the wisdom to critically assess the self (as well as culture and tradition) and the ability to empathise.

He also raised the bridled right to dignity as a notable impediment to the proliferation of human flourishing, stating that dignity-related problems had to be addressed before human flourishing could occur.

Discussing identity politics briefly, he explained that the schema’s accession to Human Rights could on occasion be segregational in nature and that societies should go beyond identity politics to further the cause of Human Rights in a more inclusive manner.

Finally, on cultivating humanity, Mr Magnus spoke of enhancing the understanding of Human Rights through an empathetic appreciation of historical and cultural artefacts. He recommended that ASEAN adapt the western-designed model of Human Rights to better suit the region’s moral environment.

Indeed, as the facets of Human Rights metamorphose in the face of changing geopolitical landscapes and social circumstances, non-governmental organisations, civil society, states and the individual will continue to play an important role in the interpretation of Human Rights theory and application.

As such, it would be progress for every citizen of the world to embrace the fluid nature of Human Rights by continuously creating and re-evaluating moral/legal norms to reflect this perennial evolution and advancement towards a state of human flourishing.


Photo courtesy of MARUAH