THE BLOG
12/10/2014 05:08 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

The Rights, They Are A-Changin'

ASSOCIATED PRESS

This past August, Missouri voters adopted an amendment to the state constitution affirming a "right to farm." The amendment would ensure that "the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed." Opponents of the amendment claimed that it was designed to protect large agribusinesses from lawsuits by environmental and animal rights groups, among others.

If the notion of a right to farm surprises you, it is because the process by which rights are established is an inexact one.

Most of us think of rights as either being God-given or at least flowing seamlessly from commonly agreed aspects of human nature like our freedom or capacity to reason ("We hold these truths to be self-evident."). But the truth is that rights are subject to political machinations just like almost everything else.

This past year has witnessed plenty of examples of traditional human rights at risk, including the crackdowns on political dissent in Egypt, the beheadings of Westerners by the Islamic State and conflicts over excessive use of force by police in the United States. No one would argue that the rights to free expression, life and due process are not well established in the lexicon of human rights.

But perhaps what has been even more interesting this past year has been the evolution of newly recognized or emerging rights. The most obvious example is that of same-sex marriage. Though the Supreme Court has not explicitly affirmed its constitutionality yet, the court is likely to rule on that question in 2015, given the conflicting circuit court rulings on the practice. And the Supreme Court's decisions to let same-sex marriage proceed in a variety of states signal at the very least that the right to marry for same-sex couples is galloping toward the mainstream.

Similarly, 2014 saw a ruling by the European Court of Justice that Google must implement a "right to be forgotten" on its local European website domains by deleting links to certain materials about individuals that they would rather not have circulating on the Web.

Under the European Union's data protection legislation, the right to be forgotten has been in place in the EU for years, but this decision gives it teeth it never had before. On November 26, the EU went even further, issuing new nonbinding guidelines that would extend the right to be forgotten to all non-European Web domains.

Social media is forcing lawmakers and courts to rethink a vast array of questions about free speech and privacy, prompted by everything from the Edward Snowden revelations to an impending Supreme Court decision on whether personal threats on Facebook are protected by the First Amendment or can be prosecuted.

Add to these examples the continuing debate about animal rights and the recognition in parts of Latin America of the rights of nature -- that is, that trees, oceans, mountains and forests have legally enforceable rights to exist and flourish -- and it is easy to see that rights are in considerable flux.

But this is how it has always been. Rights are not static. They evolve, shift and grow. Consider genocide, for example. If anything seems as if it ought to have always been a violation of human rights, it is the mass extinction of a particular group. Yet it was not until 1948 when the United Nations adopted the Convention against Genocide that such a mass atrocity was defined by international law as a crime.

This is not to say that figuring out what constitutes a legitimate "new" right is easy or smooth. It is, after all, a political process, and politics is rarely easy or smooth.

Emerging rights may well be at odds with traditional rights, as with the so-called right to farm that may prompt a battle over the human right to safe, affordable water, or the tension between the public's right to information on the Internet that appears to clash with an individual's right to privacy.

And internationally recognized rights are not established by the action of any one nation alone, much less the state of Missouri. They come into being as a result of a growing consensus of world opinion as marked by international treaties and conventions, the opinions of national and international legal bodies, and the gathering policies of international human rights organizations.

By these measures few of the "emerging" rights have yet garnered sufficient consensus to be considered established universal rights.

But what the political nature of human rights does point to is this: each one of us has a role to play in shaping the human rights of the future.

In this sense Eleanor Roosevelt's famous remark that human rights begin "in small places, close to home ... the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works" is exactly right.

Human rights are formed and re-formed by an emerging embrace of what constitutes the good society. An important point to remember between now and Human Rights Day 2015.