12/04/2012 11:02 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

Human Rights Day 2012: Much to Celebrate But Many Unresolved Challenges

"Everyone is sick and tired of this issue of human rights," Dmitri Peskov, Vladimir Putin's press secretary, said recently. "It's boringly traditional, boringly traditional, and it's not on the agenda." When I read those words, I knew human rights were here to stay. What a perfect testament to the power of democratic values that now, rather than being denounced as radical outliers, they are dismissed as too mainstream, yesterday's news.

Of course if human rights had indeed lost their potency in Russia, it is unlikely that the government would have felt the need to pass legislation several months ago requiring nonprofit groups that receive financing from the West to identify themselves as "foreign agents." Such a moniker would taint the work of Russian human rights groups like Memorial and For Human Rights -- made up entirely, let it be noted, of native Russians -- and render them ineffectual. If human rights were really of so little interest to Russian citizens, so boring, one presumes they would wither of their own accord. Surely Mr. Peskov doth protest too much.

In one sense, however, he is right. As we mark Human Rights Day on December 10, the 64th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is fair to say that the fundamental values reflected in that document -- free speech, competitive elections, rights to food, education, etc. -- have indeed become "traditional" in the sense that nations that flagrantly violate them risk international opprobrium.

But if human rights provide norms by which to identify respectable societies, they are not static or unbending. Human rights advocates cannot afford to adopt a version of Justice Antonin Scalia's Constitutional "originalism" when it comes to the UDHR. Here are three examples of modern-day challenges that the human rights movement has yet to fully resolve:

The challenge of sectarian government. Article 18 of the UDHR assures us that "everyone has the right to freedom of... religion." Discrimination against those of minority faiths is clearly not permitted. But to what extent may a constitution be grounded in sectarian values? The issue is met most dramatically today around Islamic states but applies as well to governing documents grounded in many other faiths, not least Christianity and Judaism.

The challenge of cyberspace. The UDHR was conceived in an era of postal stamps and telegrams. Where privacy ends and legitimate government interests begin fall well outside its contemplation. Governments certainly may not use new technologies to stifle legitimate dissent but in an age of Wikileaks and cyber warfare, clarity around personal privacy and public security is still a work in progress.

The challenge of climate change. Nothing will have more profound implications for the future of human rights in the 21st century than rising sea levels, expanding drought and the scarcity of resources they and other environmental changes will inevitably bring. The result could be paucity and violence on a scale rarely before seen. But for the most part human rights practitioners regard climate change as a practical problem that falls outside their bailiwick rather than a harbinger of human rights violations with which sooner or later they will have to deal.

Like all rules for living, human rights standards are subject to evolution. When the UDHR was unanimously adopted in 1948, few of its contemporary endorsers would have contemplated that it and subsequent human rights covenants and conventions would lead to widespread disapproval of the death penalty or support for the rights of gays and lesbians.

That very fluidity cuts both ways of course. It makes for an expansion of our understanding of rights but it allows, at least theoretically, for their contraction as well. That is why a vibrant human rights movement is so important. And it is also why, of all the things that can be said of human rights, "boring" is not one of them.

William F. Schulz is President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an international human rights organization based in Cambridge, Mass, and is a former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA.