Realizing the Human Right to Belong
Here’s how we can build on the century-old legacy of global human rights to solve the modern crisis of social isolation.
One hundred years ago, some of the world’s brightest minds were assembled together in the French countryside to try to achieve something unprecedented: a global legal framework for the defense of human rights. Europe had just emerged from the ravages of WWI, and the diplomats, planners, and scholars assembled in Versailles in 1919 saw their work as nothing short of essential for human survival.
They were right. While the League of Nations — which they formally proposed in June of that year — didn’t ultimately succeed, it did lay the groundwork for vital future human rights compacts. It’s a legacy that’s been crucial to preventing and defusing conflicts, defending the environment, and promoting dignity around the world.
A full century after the conception of the League of Nations in 1919, it’s increasingly clear the world is at another inflection point — one like the end of WWI or the end of WWII, which brought the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
While we have thankfully avoided conflict on the scale of the world wars in recent times, we, as a human family, nonetheless face a global challenge on par with those of the last century: we’re facing a crisis of social isolation that’s pervasive, systemic, and threatening to our survival.
People are increasingly alienated from meaningful work, a sense of community, connection to land and nature, a sense of mattering with respect to political and economic institutions, and — ultimately — a sense of being a part of a greater whole. The upshot of all this isolation is anxiety, depression, violence, and environmental degradation on a global basis. It’s a comprehensive challenge to humanity’s future.
What we’re seeing is a society-wide increase in what I call “othering” — the phenomenon Toni Morrison describes as the tendency “to separate and judge those not in our clan as the enemy, as the vulnerable and deficient needing control.” It’s an age-old human phenomenon, but it’s reached a dangerous crescendo today.
The world of 2019 looks very different from the world of 1919. But we’re still in need of a revolution in terms of human rights. Today, I believe what’s required is the design and defense of a new kind of right: The Human Right to Belong.
Last month, I went to teach a class and give a public lecture at Harvard Law School — all focused on questions of social isolation and the idea of a Human Right to Belong. I didn’t know what some of the brightest young legal and policy minds of the modern era would think of this radically new concept. Yet the community at Harvard Law was largely open to the notion: that we can and must reverse the modern challenge of social isolation and that human rights can be a useful paradigm for doing so. Together, we contemplated some questions:
What would it mean to view the work of human rights through the lens of belonging?
What would it look like to build public policy toward the aspiration of ending social isolation?
How can we envision and enact a right to belong?
The Human Right to Belong is, as I see it, a “right” in the sense of a “birthright” — something to which we’re entitled by merit of being born. Belonging is something intrinsic to being human. And yet, there are also detailed and practical dimensions to the vision. In our conversations at Harvard, we started from the notion that a Human Right to Belong isn’t a singular legal entitlement, but rather a constellation of rights — from the rights of people with disabilities and older persons to avoid discrimination to the rights of refugees to a nationality. It’s a framework for thinking about the rights of people to love whom they choose or to maintain a living cultural heritage as a minority community. Ultimately, it’s a framework for thinking about how to build dignity across the social, economic, and political domains.
It’s a vehicle for enshrining the value of connection: to people, to place, to purpose, and to power.
Recently, I had a conversation with Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, who shared with me his view that this value of belonging is embedded in many of the world’s most bedrock legal rights: for example, the right to assemble or to avoid discrimination as a member of an ethnic or religious or political minority. There are global legal rights and norms that keep families together — rules that underscore the egregiousness of the Trump Administration’s decision to separate children from parents at the US-Mexico border in 2018.
Of course, enshrining a specific right to belong is an ambitious aspiration because it runs up against the very limits of law and public policy. If, for example, an older person is socially isolated because her friends have passed away or her family has had to move away to pursue employment opportunities, that isolation isn’t directly the result of a governmental abuse or failing. Such a situation isn’t necessarily in the realm of traditional human rights.
So, in the work of realizing a Human Right to Belong, where do we begin?
There’s one thing I know for sure: the work should start with conscious and concerted efforts to address the most extreme and pernicious forms of social isolation that exist on the face of the earth.
- For example, Human Rights Watch found in 2016 that an estimated 18,000 people with psychosocial disabilities in Indonesia were physically shackled — to beds, cement blocks, or in animal pens. While the exposure forced the government to act, there are still an estimated 12,800 people in such conditions in that country today. In Nigeria, untold numbers of people with disabilities still face these unthinkable agonies. Realizing a right to belong means working systematically to free people from these circumstances.
- To give a more widely-known example, solitary confinement — holding “prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact” — is an instance of explicit and intentional social isolation. In the US, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners were being held in solitary as of earlier this decade. Of these inmates, approximately one third “were actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.” This reflects the basic reality that human beings need connection: to people, to place, to purpose, to some semblance of autonomy and power. Realizing a right to belong means changing the policies and procedures that enable solitary confinement.
- To give a less extreme but nonetheless pervasive and pernicious example: there are upwards of 230 million children under five who do not have birth certificates or other birth records. That’s about 35% of the world’s total population in that age range. Those without a birth record — mostly members of ethnic minority groups that dominant powers don’t want to count as citizens — are fundamentally invisible to the state. A child without a birth record often can’t access healthcare, immunization, or other vital services. A child without a birth record can’t prove his or her age, so therefore faces risks of labor exploitation, forcible conscription into the military, child marriage, or trafficking. This is the essence of not belonging. The UN Sustainable Development Goals call for progress toward counting and registering people — including addressing the gender dimensions of birth registration. Realizing a right to belong can be as straightforward and clear as the work of building civil registration and vital statistics programs — ensuring meaningful universal birth records.
- Across the world today, we can see destructive social isolation in the ways that whole peoples are being made landless and stateless by climate change and other forces. We can see how forced migration requires people to disconnect from their families, their traditions, their ties to land and culture and community. Realizing a right to belong means focusing all our energies on reversing these trends.
Over time, I believe we can move beyond mitigating damage and begin to work toward enshrining positive rights that support the goal of genuine belonging. In some countries, for example, it’s possible to work toward the prioritization of belonging through basic social guarantees: providing a minimum standard of medical care, transportation, or even opportunities to access welcoming public spaces. These substantive rights can be fundamental to belonging in a place or a polity. More broadly, the work of realizing a Human Right to Belong is about establishing both laws and cultural norms that our societies choose to live by — for example, the accepted norm that an older person should not be allowed to languish alone and the laws and regulations that naturally follow from such consensus.
Ultimately, cultural change must inspire action. It has to inform individuals’ moral calculus.
This work, for example, can mean that calling out nursing homes or other facilities that leave older persons in states of isolated despondency or doing what we can, through NGOs or personal action, to help older persons live with rich connection.
The Human Right to Belong isn’t just a vision for wealthy industrialized countries. It’s a vision for everyone. It’s not a function of what we can afford. Rather, it comes down to the question: what do we really value? Over my two decades of exploration and study within this topic, I’ve found more and more reason for hope. I’ve seen heroes prioritizing values of real and deep human connection — building a Human Right to Belong — in real, tangible, vital ways:
- Native teachers from Canada’s First Nations empowering young people to know their land and restore their sense of union through culture.
- Arts programs enabling people coming out of conflict or oppression to find their bliss through song and creative expression.
- City planners and architects working to humanize and transform impersonal spaces into contexts for connection.
- Indigenous advocates turning harsh prisons into “healing villages” where people can restore a sense of connection to nature and tradition, and, in turn, reengage society in a positive way.
- I’ve seen inner-city farms, skill swaps, time banks, participatory city budgeting initiatives, community-owned art spaces, and intergenerational co-living programs bringing people together in service of something greater.
The work of building belonging isn’t just about designing and implementing policies and programs. It’s again about reexamining and reimagining our answer to this most fundamental question: What do we value?
The periods after World War I and World War II were so pregnant with possibility because the old systems and frameworks had broken down. People were not just ready for change — they were crying out for something new.
At this moment — one hundred years after the start of a global experiment in human rights — we are again ripe for renewal. We need a revolution in values.
This work of renewal doesn’t just happen in treaty halls like Versailles or centers of legal scholarship like Harvard — it happens in the streets, in the schools, in our most fundamental ways of seeing and sensing the world. It’s about reordering our priorities: Consciously determining whether we structure our societies to maximize economic growth, efficiency, and competitiveness, or — rather — elevate community, connection, and belonging. In contemplating these questions, we can overcome the cruel logic of othering and uncover the truth: There is no other; the other is only ever us.
While the challenges are real, I was struck by the optimism of the students and scholars at Harvard. We can and should have hope. Martin Luther King put the sentiment best: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” One hundred years into the era of global human rights, let’s envision what it would mean to realize the Human Right to Belong.