Human Rights as a Foundation for Practice by Susan Maret, Ph.D.

Human rights are “rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status” (Office of the High Commissioner, 2018). In this post to SpeakUP!, I suggest that human rights instruments serve as a foundation for empowered professional practice. Here I build on Kay Mathiesen’s (2015) informational human rights as a “subtopic” within information ethics to advocate simply that human rights are information rights. As I outline below, in one way or another, human rights frameworks concern information and knowledge as essential components of human dignity, self-determination, freedom of expression, and security.

The Human Rights Landscape

Three instruments, alongside two “optional protocols,” make up the International Bill of Human Rights: the United Nations’ (UN) 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which entered into force in 1976. Human rights are also affirmed through the American Convention on Human Rights (“Pact of Sane Jose Costa Rica,” 1969) and the Charter of Human Rights of the European Union. Certain civil liberties, such as free speech and privacy, are emphasized in numerous constitutions of nation-states to animate and support the International Bill of Human Rights.

Human Rights as Information Rights

The cornerstone of human rights as information rights resides in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The ICCPR particularly stresses that while the right to freedom of expression includes the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media” of choice, these rights may not be absolute. That is, this complex of rights “carries special duties and responsibilities” that include guarding the rights and/or reputations of others, and critical to archival practice and librarianship, limits on information as it pertains to national security concerns.

Additional human rights as information rights are identified in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially Goal 16; the right to communicate is affirmed in Articles 13 and 14 of the American Convention on Human Rights; the right to truth, which “may be characterized differently in some legal systems as the right to know or the right to be informed or freedom of information,” expands the International Bill of Rights. In no small way, and of significance to archivists and librarians, technology has pushed information rights to the forefront of societal concern. For example,the protection of human rights with regard to social networking services, the protection of human rights with regard to search engines, and the controversial right to be forgotten, are championed as a means of guarding privacy and freedom of expression on the Internet.

Access to archives and libraries are an integral part of human rights as information rights. Here I include access to formerly classified records as a means to unlock secrets underlying government policies. Archives not only “enable every nation to exercise its right to an undistorted written record,” but ensure “the right of each people to know the truth about its past” (Human Rights Council 2011, p.3). The 2011 Universal Declaration on Archives, for example, highlights the significance of the archive for “accountability and transparency, for protecting citizens rights, for establishing individual and collective memory, for understanding the past, and for documenting the present to guide future actions.” Libraries, especially public libraries, are long recognized and prized as beacons in support of human rights as information rights; in the United States and UK, the “ideals of human rights” are embodied in American Library Association’s policies and documents (McCook & Phenix, 2006, p. 59) as well as the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals’ (CILIP) Ethical Framework. To this end, archival (e.g., SAA and ICA) as well as LIS codes of ethics reflect a commitment to human rights (McCook & Phenix, 2006; Mathiesen, 2015).

Secrecy, Censorship, and Propaganda

Archivists and librarians face a myriad of challenges around the creation, availability, dissemination, ownership, and preservation of information and knowledge. These challenges reflect deeper, often intractable, social problems that test professional values and ethics. Some challenges are technological in origin, while others are a direct result of failed social policies and the tug of war between power/knowledge in the networked society.

Three interconnected information conditions that I am most concerned with in my work – secrecy, censorship, and propaganda – are of paramount concern to archivists and librarians. This trifecta often intersects to pose a challenge to access, and veracity of information. First, secrecy as the intentional/non-intentional concealment of information, may occur through the outright withholding of information by governments, institutions, corporations, media outlets, and other entities. Secrecy may also occur through poor information design, which not influences the usability of databases, catalogs, forms, and Web pages, but impacts the confidence individuals may have in information provided by an organization.

Secrecy is thought to run counter to freedom of information and self-determination, and is often equated with a form of censorship. Indeed, censorship is frequently “difficult to trace, as it normally takes place in an atmosphere of secrecy” (De Baets, 2011). In this regard, secrecy meshed with censorship is employed, for example, under the weight of longterm use of national security classification and restrictions on the press (e.g., the President and the Press, prepublication review, the UK’s D-Notice System), creating a veritable tug of war between the duty to protect and the public right to know. This, however, is not the entire story. Censorship, as an attempt to prohibit the production and dissemination of information and knowledge, also concerns surveillance (Jansen, 1991). Information seeking behavior and the right to research are invisibly influenced by censorship and covert watching; more to the point, self-censorship as an inhibitor of curiosity cannot be underestimated in a climate of veillance (watching). Here we are reminded that widespread surveillance and collection of personal data by global intelligence agencies (e.g., the 5 Eyes), in addition to behind the curtain algorithms that de-rank, rank, anticipate, surveill, and judge, create a perfect storm in terms of their impact on information rights.

Propaganda and disinformation (or known falsehood) not only tamper with history, but interfere with the formation of judgment and opinion. The 2017 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and “Fake News,” Disinformation, and Propaganda states these information conditionsmay harm individual reputations and privacy, or incite to violence, discrimination or hostility against identifiable groups in society.” More importantly, the Joint Declaration cautions against censorship that may occur in response to disruptive ideas. The Declaration states that thehuman right to impart information and ideas is not limited to ‘correct’ statements, that the right also protects information and ideas that may shock, offend and disturb, and that prohibitions on disinformation may violate international human rights standards.”

What Can Be Done?

The challenges that information professionals face are indeed difficult, but they are not insurmountable. Through John Dewey’s idea of “education for a changing social order,” archivists and librarians can create an educational climate “that introduces students into the realities of the present order – or disorder, order being a courtesy name for the present chaos” (Dewey, 1934/1986, p.158). Below I offer several proposals for informed practice, which in turn have the potential to engage communities:

  • Actively develop courses and public educational materials that sketch
    out institutional secrecy and methods of information moderation and control;
  • Actively promote education in the area of open records and freedom of information laws (e.g., FOIA in the U.S., FOI in the UK, around the globe and specific countries);
  • Continue to do what we in LIS do best: foster critical thinking and research skills in order for individuals to make critical decisions and discern fact from fancy;
  • Encourage human rights literacy. Display, share, and integrate materials on information rights as human rights (e.g, Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration; Articles 1,19, ICCPR) into library programming and community outreach. Intellectual freedom policy statements and codes of ethics created by LIS organizations are also powerful intellectual devices that stress the profession’s commitment to specific values and policies reflecting information rights.

While human rights are critiqued for their Western origins, emphasis on the individual, and claims of universality (Donnelly, 2013; Galtung, 1994; Hastrup, 2001), the International Bill of Rights and related documents not only enrich the philosophical range of archival practice and librarianship, but offer a great opportunity to educate.


De Baets, A. (2011). Taxonomy of concepts related to the censorship of history. In S. Maret (Ed.) Government secrecy, Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, 19 (pp. 53-65). Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Dewey, J. (1934/1986). Education for a changing social order. In J. A. Boydston, P. Baysinger, & B. Levine (Eds.). The later works, 1933-1934, volume 9. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Donnelly, J. (2013). Universal human rights in theory and practice. 3rd ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Galtung, J. (1994). Human rights in another key. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Hastrup, K. (ed.) (2001). Human rights on common grounds: The quest for universality. New York: Kluwer Law International.

Human Rights Council. (2011). Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the seminar on experiences of archives as a means to guarantee the right to the truth. April 14, A/HRC/17/21. Retrieved from

Jansen, Sue Curry. (1991). Censorship: The knot that binds power and knowledge. New York : Oxford University Press.

McCook, K. D. L. P., & Phenix, K. J. (2007). Public libraries and human rights. Public Library Quarterly, 25(1-2), 57-73.

Mathiesen, K. (2015). Human rights as a topic and guide for LIS research and practice. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 66(7), 1305-1322.

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