Cultural ecology of human rights and freedoms

Historically we have constructed our classrooms with the assumption that learning is a dry, staid affair best conducted in quiet tones and ruled by an unemotional consideration of the facts. The field of education, however, is beginning to see the potential power of emotions to fuel learning, informed by contributions from psychology and neuroscience. Sarah Rose Cavanagh argues in her book, The Spark of Learning, that if  educators want to capture a students’ attention, harness their working memory, bolster their long-term retention, and enhance their motivation, rhey should consider the emotional impact of their teaching materials, style and course design. To make this argument, she brings to bear a wide range of evidence from the study of education, psychology, and neuroscience, and she provides practical examples of successful classroom activities from a variety of disciplines in secondary and higher education.  With respect to human rights education there is no doubt that a photograph has this emotional power.

1 Visualising human rights

Fig 1 Ukraine 2022

Ukrainian soldiers rushed to aid a family hit by Russian mortar fire, Sunday, 6th March, but there was little to be done. Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Human rights are fundamental rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. They represent protection of our basic needs, as well as the conditions we need to flourish as human beings. These rights have corresponding responsibilities, of governments to their citizens, and of individuals to each other and to their wider communities. It is important that young people understand these rights and responsibilities. This will help to protect them, empower them and enable them to become responsible and active citizens.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, photography was considered a ‘universal language’ that would communicate across barriers of race and culture.

Images are a crucial way of disseminating ideas, creating a sense of proximity between peoples across the globe, and reinforcing notions of a shared humanity. Yet visual culture can also define boundaries between people, supporting perceived hierarchies of race, gender, and culture, justifying arguments for conquest and oppression. Only in recent years have scholars begun to argue for new notions of photography and culture that turn our attention to our responsibilities as viewers, or an ethics of spectatorship.  Visualising human rights is about the diverse ways that visual images have been used to define, contest, or argue on behalf of human rights. Images are powerless in themselves but are empowered by people using them to interpret their relations to each other in specific situations. As a knowledge system within the theme of cultural ecology they bring people together to develop visual practices promoting human rights around the globe.  Such practices not only involve the use of photos but also graphic displays such as diagrams and mind maps (Figs 1-3). 

Human rights is an interdisciplinary issue and there’s an avalanche of (mis)information.  That’s why human rights barrister Adam Wagner founded EachOther (formerly called RightsInfo). He particularly wanted to make sure that complex human rights issues could be understood by anyone and to dispel many of the myths that surround it.  Beyond Words are creative pioneers in data visualization and information design for this purpose.   International Classrooms On Line has tackled this problem using mind mapping to expose the cultural ecology of human rights and freedoms.

Fig 2 Human rights explainers

Fig 3 Part of rights and freedoms mind map.  See full map at:

2 Human rights: some principles

Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. . .

Preamble Universal Declaration of Human Rights

…every individual and every organ of society. . .shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms. . .

Preamble Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This Universal Declaration of Human Rights [is] a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations . . .

Preamble Universal Declaration of Human Rights

All human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. 

World Conference on Human Rights Vienna 1993

Liberty does not consist in mere declarations of the rights of man. It consists in the translation of those declarations into definite action.

-Woodrow Wilson Address July 4, 1914

All human rights are universal, indivisible,interdependent and interrelated.

World Conference on Human Rights Vienna 1993

 Human rights are a part of British history, from the Magna Carta to the suffragettes. The Second World War was fought on these principles and since then, the UK has played a leading role in drafting and promoting human rights standards. It has chosen to ratify a number of international human rights instruments and human rights will continue to play an important role in the UK’s constitutional and domestic legal arrangements, whether it is through the Human Rights Act or a Bill of Rights. Moreover, as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the UK is legally obliged to teach about children’s rights.

Jack Snyder with Robert and Renée Belfer take the view that despite current international difficulties, liberal democracy based on rule of law and the full panoply of human rights is by far the most successful form of social organisation yet invented. No democracies ever fight wars against each other, and no country other than the oil states and Singapore have reached the wealth of one-fourth US GDP, without adopting a thoroughgoing liberal order, including human rights. Snyder and the Belfers discuss the backlash against liberals who promote human rights by shaming.  Indeed, it is widely accepted that ‘naming and shaming’ is no longer an effective tool in the hands of Western governments who wish to exert pressure on governments in other parts of the world to curb abuses of rights. In the era of populist politics of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, resistance to shamers, who are seen as overbearing, alien, decadent, elitist, and cosmopolitan, is a global trend. Snyder and the Belfers make the point that shaming is a potentially very powerful weapon that can easily backfire in the hands of the wielder. Human rights are so important that they need to be promoted effectively, not jeopardized by the unintended consequences of shaming.

Jack Snyder defines shaming in the context of human rights advocacy. . Personal shame implies a defective personal trait that may be difficult to remediate. Group shame distinguishes between routine social practices with low cultural importance as opposed to expressions of culture that are important to the group’s fundamental identity.   It is emotionally charged public criticism that denounces or humiliates human rights violators and their abettors in a way that targets the essence of an individual’s identity.  Shaming normally involves verbal characterizations of behavior as ‘shameful’ or ‘inhumane’, but simply naming violations for which amnesty is legally forbidden (genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity) can be considered inherently shaming.

Human rights advocates continue to use shaming as a central tool despite recognizing its declining effectiveness. Shame is indeed a potent motivator, but its effects are often counterproductive for this purpose. Especially when wielded by cultural outsiders in ways that appear to condemn local social practices, shaming is likely to produce anger, resistance, backlash, and deviance from outgroup norms, or denial and evasion. Shaming can easily be interpreted as a show of contempt, which risks triggering fears for the autonomy and security of the group. In these circumstances, established religious and elite networks can employ traditional normative counter-narratives to recruit a popular base for resistance. If this counter-mobilization becomes entrenched in mass social movements, popular ideology, and enduring institutions, the unintended consequences of shaming may leave human rights advocates farther from their goal.

To be effective, criticism should:- 

  • be respectful; 
  • be focused on the deed rather than a possibly irremediable character flaw; 
  • be aimed at repairing the social rift;
  • be forceful reminders of principled standards; 
  •  be directed to everyone, not just those at risk of misbehavior;
  • come from insiders to the social group, or outsiders who are widely respected and seen as sympathetic;  
  • compare standards with their own prior performance, not shamed by comparison to neighbours and rivals;
  • not insist on using the language of legalism and universalism; 
  • acknowledge the validity of local normative systems;
  • use generic language of respect and fairness that travels across normative systems; 
  • reserve legal talk to subject matter where outsiders have patently legitimate standing, such as respect for legal due process as a condition of doing international business.
  • advance compliance standards not as moral or even legal imperatives but as technical advice for succeeding at a task. 

Ruling circles in developing countries who are sceptical about human rights are nonetheless keen to gain wealth, technological sophistication, advanced medical services, and other desirable trappings of modernity, many of which flow from advanced liberal democracies and the global capitalist system that liberal states run. States with rights compliance shortfalls tend to be much more enthusiastic about the looser ‘rights-based approach’ of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which loosely link good governance targets and indicators to tangible development assistance. This removes human rights advocacy from the realm of shaming and locates it nearer to management consulting.  Most violations of international law seem to stem from incapacity. Sometimes fixing organisational and technical problems can facilitate rights compliance. In cases that lack a favourable setting for human rights shaming, performance indicators might be more usefully designed as constructive diagnostics for institutional reform than as tools for shaming.

Kristen Neff believes that self-compassion has three core components—kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness—and the fierce and tender aspect of each has an important role to play in the social justice movement. Kindness provides warmth, love, and understanding when we’re hurting from the pain of injustice but also spurs us to be brave and courageous as we try to correct it. Common humanity helps us feel connected to others as we acknowledge that oppression harms everyone, and also empowers us as we bond with others in the struggle for equality. Mindfulness allows us to turn toward and be present with the pain of discrimination and also provides the clarity needed to call it out

Finally, the credibility of human rights as a standard for social behaviour depends on how attractive and dynamic the liberal international order is. It also depends in part on whether people can see themselves and their identity group fitting into that order successfully. This means that a top priority for promoting human rights is restoring the stability of the liberal order and tailoring rights initiatives to the prevailing conditions in places where abuses are occurring. The social psychology of emotion suggests that transnational shaming is unlikely to make a constructive contribution to those efforts.

3  Rights to ecosystem services

Biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are key for enjoying a broad range of human rights, including those for food and health. In turn, exercising human rights, such as public participation and access to information, can foster stronger action for conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems. People in rural areas who directly depend on biodiversity for their survival are exceptionally vulnerable to limitations in access to biodiversity and biodiversity loss. Understanding and acting upon synergies between biodiversity and human rights can play a key role in the transformations required for sustainability in line with the 2030 Agenda, including achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (Fig 4).

Fig 4 Ecosystem services

The human rights based approach (HRBA) to ecosystem services provides the legal ground and principles to empower boys, girls, men and women to claim their human rights as rights holders, and to increase the capacity of those who are obliged to respect, promote, protect and fulfil those rights as duty bearers. Application of the HRBA in its development to cooperate with people living in poverty entails a focus on both what is aimed to be achieved, through standards in human rights treaties and laws, and how to do it, based on the human rights principles of non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability. 

States, as the main duty bearers of human rights, have the obligations to Respect (i.e. not violate the right to freedom of opinion and expression which is a challenge, for example, for rural people dependent on local biodiversity that live far away from cities and the courts); Protect (i.e. implement laws and mechanisms that prevent violations of biodiversity and ecosystem-related rights by state and non-state actors), and Fulfil (i.e. progressive measures that further the realisation of rights to education, health and culture until they become a reality, which is closely related to continued access to biodiversity for food and medicinal uses for many communities that directly depend on ecosystems for their livelihood). 

Diversity of cultures have evolved by peoples’ close interaction with the natural environment as the basic source of all sustenance: biodiversity has and is providing food, medicine, clothing, shelter, and all other material needs, as well as of physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. People have developed detailed local knowledge of plants, animals, and ecological processes, and therefore also contributed to the shaping and preservation of the cultural landscape. This is the background for why indigenous peoples and local communities often contribute effectively to the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity, and must become active defenders of environmental rights. Poor and marginalised people are often prone to be more vulnerable to the negative impacts and effects of deteriorating ecosystems in lack of alternative income, livelihoods and information. Human rights may have individual as well as collective dimensions. For example, the cultural rights of indigenous peoples entail elders transmitting ecological knowledge, including the intrinsic and cultural values, to younger generations, which in turn contribute to safeguarding the biodiversity to which their culture is linked. The universality, interrelatedness, interdependency and indivisibility of all human rights are also principles of HRBA. One of the benefits of using HRBA in policies and programmes that embrace the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services, is that they specify the rights and responsibilities of actors building on extensively agreed norms as well as interpretations of human rights systems. Many state constitutions also include human rights and relevant provisions for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems.

4  Human rights approach to governance

The Goals and visions of the 2030 Agenda are agreed at global level, but a large part of their implementation takes place locally. To make things work, we need all levels.  The bold decisions required to achieve the SDGs can only be carried through when those who are governed feel included and understood by those who govern. SDG 16 calls for effective institutions at all levels. One determinant of effectiveness is the way institutions work together across levels.

Reference sheets have been provided to facilitate coordination and integration of biodiversity conservation with key sectors at USAID by using a common format to present the interests of these sectors and opportunities for integration through collaboration, co-funding or single sector funds. These sheets are intended to be used throughout the program cycle by 

environment and non-environment officers alike (Fig. 5).

Fig 5 Biodiversity integration reference sheet

Laws and policies for conserving and sustainable management of biodiversity and ecosystems are complementary to human rights instruments. One of the means to contribute to biodiversity protection is to provide effective mechanisms for defenders of biodiversity and ecosystems, either to individuals or collectively such as to indigenous peoples or local communities living in areas under exploitation by others, to exercise their civil and political rights without fear of persecution. Examples of these cases include the right to access biodiversity-related information as the basis for the rights of women, men, girls and boys to be able to participate meaningfully in public consultations concerning environmental impact assessments or spatial planning in rural or urban settings.  The right to freedom of opinion and expression is also exercised when denouncing cases of non-compliance with biodiversity regulations by the extractive industry (e.g. mining, forest or oil extraction). Civil society organisations play an important role in facilitating the public participation of communities as well as expressing the concerns of the affected peoples in national, regional and global fora. In practice, important challenges exist in the institutions needed for guaranteeing the rights of environmental and land rights defenders who play a key role in protecting a diverse range of biodiversity and ecosystems. Those opposing large-scale projects with significant impact on ecosystems and on-site biodiversity conservation may face risks to their personal integrity and even their lives. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has said that those working on land rights and natural resources are the second-largest group of defenders at risk of being killed. 

Besides civil and political rights, exercising economic, social and cultural rights can also benefit biodiversity and ecosystems. The customary rights of farmers and indigenous people and their traditional knowledge such as local conservation, sustainable use of plants and animals including genetic resources and natural resource management, are often overlooked and should be acknowledged in decision-making processes. Weak institutions, ineffective environmental legislation, unclear accountability, poor transparency and a lack of public access and participation are usually the main causes behind the undermining of important ecosystem services, and the inability to guarantee access to important natural resources and biodiversity. By applying the HRBA, when supporting the strengthening of institutions and governance, organisations such as Sida can actively promote the work to protect biodiversity, and to promote people’s right to healthy ecosystems and natural resources.

Human rights underpin all the SDGs and contribute to fulfilling the SDGs related to ecosystems and biodiversity, like life on land and life below water. The SDGs related to ecosystems and biodiversity, in turn, provide means to exercise the human rights related SDGs, like zero hunger, good health and wellbeing as well as clean water and sanitation. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recognizes the importance of biodiversity integration in sectoral and cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies and national decision-making, as well as the contributions of indigenous peoples and local communities and their knowledge, innovations and practices, to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Human rights is implicitly mentioned in the CBD and its protocols in relation to access, fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of genetic resources held by indigenous peoples and local communities. 

Examples of questions to improve integration of human rights and biodiversity are: 

• Is the programme or policy taking into account the opportunities and challenges for environmental and human rights defenders, both for men and women, working on biodiversity-related matters to freely exercise their rights individually and collectively without any fear? 

• Is the programme or policy identifying and supporting right holders such as local farmers, elders and women who may have a specific contribution to biodiversity and ecosystems services such as to agrobiodiversity or cultural services? 

• Are targeted measures being considered in the programme or policy to enhance the protection of marginalised people living in vulnerable situations such as those lacking formal legal land and resource rights, and those most affected by the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services owing to their direct dependence on them for their livelihoods?  The erosion of nature, the extinction of species and the loss of biological diversity at unprecedented rates severely threatens human rights for present and future generations.

The loss of global biodiversity is having and will continue to have devastating effects on a wide range of human rights for decades to come. This report is a stark reminder that we can simply not enjoy our basic human rights to life, health, food and safe water without a healthy environment.  Failing to protect biodiversity can constitute a violation of the right to a healthy environment, a right that is legally recognised by 155 States. The protection of biological diversity is indispensable to realise the right to available, accessible, sustainable and nutritious food. Industrial agriculture being one of the main culprit of biodiversity decline, it is vital to have effective and balanced policies to protect ecosystems’ health while producing sufficient nutritious food for all.

From pollination to photosynthesis, all humans depend on healthy ecosystems. But the world’s poorest communities, indigenous peoples, farmers and fishermen are particularly vulnerable to the negative impact of changes in climate, biodiversity and ecosystem functions.

As the devastating impacts of pollution and climate change accelerate, it becomes essential to use every tool available, including the effective regulation of businesses, to address these planetary challenges,” said the members of the UN Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises. However, they said, it is also vital that as urgent action is taken to protect the rest of nature, those actions respect and protect human rights.

In the past, conservation actions such as new parks and renewable energy efforts have violated the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities. Using a rights-based approach, as the IPBES report recommends, will prevent these kinds of violations in the future.  As most of the world’s biodiversity hotspots overlap with indigenous peoples’ territories, protecting their rights over these territories is an imperative.  States have already reached agreements to combat the causes of biodiversity loss, which include habitat destruction, illegal poaching, logging and fishing, over-exploitation of lands, pesticides and other agrochemicals, pollution and climate change. But now urgent action is still needed to implement legal and institutional frameworks to protect biodiversity and all of the human rights that depend on healthy ecosystems. Governments should ensure public information and participation in biodiversity-related decisions and provide access to effective remedies.

5 The Law of Help

Human rights and freedoms are guaranteed by rules, which both aim to constrain a community and provide the necessary help for society to operate within the rules of society and remain sustainable. It was in the fifth volume of Modern Painters, published in 1860, that John Ruskin identified ‘help’ as ‘the highest and first law of the universe, which expressed hospitality, altruism, compassion, kindness and charity as the other names of life.  He moved from the study of paintings to plants, animals, and humans, thereby drawing together the different objects of study with which he had been preoccupied for seventeen years, from the first to the last volume of Modern Painters.  Ruskin rationalised his actions with the concept of composition.  For him It meant simply, putting several things together so as to make one thing out of them; the nature and goodness of which they all have a share in producing.  “It is the essence of composition that everything should be in a determined place, perform an intended part, and act in that part advantageously for everything that is connected with it. Composition, understood in this pure sense, is the type, in the arts of mankind, of the Providential government of the world”.  His model was a tree. Whereas a branch can be taken away without harming a tree, a limb cannot be removed without doing harm to an animal, and so Ruskin reasoned, ‘intensity of life is also intensity of helpfulness, completeness of depending of each part on all the rest. The ceasing of this help is what we call corruption; and in proportion to the perfectness of the help, is the dreadfulness of the loss’. He positioned ‘help’ against ‘separation’ and delineated something like a social policy in which ‘government and co-operation are in all things and eternally the rights and freedoms of helpfulness, maintaining the laws of life . Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, are the laws of death. If we don’t value nature, if we continue to be species-selfish, we’re almost sure to deprive future generations, and likely even our future selves, of a great good; and that good is not merely the commodity use of nature, but includes practical goods like virtue, as well as the experiences of awe and wonder arising from interacting with nature. 

6  Internet References


Human rights biodiversity and ecosystems

Why protect nature?

Backlash against rights shaming emotions

Self Compassion and mindfulness

Self Compassion and shame

Human influences on evolution

 Why do we need to protect biodiversity

Human Rights Here And Now

John Ruskin’s Politics and Natural Law

The Law of Help

Ruskin’s ecological vision (1843-1886)

Comrade Ruskin

Does Law Create Freedom

Goodnss in Nature

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