1 Day to Human Rights Day: Bringing Rights Together

Image for Human Rights Day -1In the last of our series of blogs in the run up to Human Rights Day, we’re looking at situations where different human rights risk being in tension with each other. We argue that in a number of key areas of potential clash, the work, professionalism and ethics of librarians offer a valuable response. 

Over the last week, our blogs have looked at just some of the different ideas contained within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which will turn 70 tomorrow.

They are ideals – and indeed should be, as no country or society should ever feel like they have fully implemented the Declaration, and can now relax. Defending and promoting these rights is a constant effort, not least for libraries.

A complicating factor in this work is the fact that rights can, sometimes, collide. Because it is possible that one individual’s exercise of freedom can restrict that of someone else.

The Declaration, in its Article 29b, recognises this risk: ‘In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others’.

At the same time, it warns that no part of the Declaration ‘may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein’.

There is clearly a tension, and not necessarily an easy one to manage. These tensions also exist in the work of libraries, requiring careful judgement and attention.

As the last in our set of blogs in the run-up to Human Rights Day, this post will look at three examples of where achieving the best result requires balance, and how libraries – uniquely – can help provide this.


Access to Information vs Privacy: the Right to be Forgotten

Libraries have long had a mission to collect material about the world today – newspapers, magazines, books and other documents. They then make this available to users in order to support research and understanding about the present and past.

Such materials have always contained information about people, from simple factual data to information about political views and personal characteristics. The fact that such materials place limits on the right to privacy has been generally accepted, given the contribution made to research and learning, and the fact that researchers needed to visit a library to read them.

With the coming of the internet, far more information is available, from a growing number of websites (of which only a very small share belongs to libraries), more quickly and easily than ever before. This makes it more difficult for past mistakes to be ‘forgotten’.

Following a case brought to a Spanish court, the Court of Justice of the European Union therefore developed the concept of a ‘right to be forgotten’, or at least a right to be delisted from search results. Meanwhile, the General Data Protection Regulation has strengthened the ‘right to erasure’ – the right of individuals to ask that information about them be deleted.

This brings into focus a first clash of rights – between the right to a private life (Article 12), and the right of access to information (Article 19).

For libraries, this is a relevant question. Citing Article 12 in its Statement on the subject, IFLA has acknowledged that some information may be unfairly damaging, where it is ‘untrue, where it is available illegitimately or illegally, where it is too personally sensitive or where it is prejudicially no longer relevant, among other possibilities’.

However, it has also underlined that the possibility to limit access to – or erase parts of – the historical record need to be the exception, not the rule. Such provisions can too easily be used to hide information that can support decision-making, or whitewash reputations. Any restrictions implemented therefore need to be transparent, managed by the courts rather than private actors.

This is not to say that libraries themselves do not have a role to play in this. They can ensure that access to information is provided in a way that is respectful of the interests of the subject, as well as of the reader. This provides a more nuanced way of managing this tension, as well as leaving space for future generations to make their own judgements.

In this, the approach is similar to that with access to indigenous cultural expression, where applying professional ethics to questions of whether, and how, to give access to works represents a much more nuanced way of achieving goals than laws.


Freedom of Expression vs Freedom from Discrimination

The response to hate speech is a frequent subject of discussion in the media.

It is clear that there have always been voices promoting the rejection of the other. The internet has, however, made it easier for such voices to spread, strengthening their power.

There are legitimate fears about the links between hate speech and harm to the groups targeted. Indeed, Article 7 underlines that ‘All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination’.

At the same time, there is also the right to free expression set out in Article 19 of the Declaration, a key principle for the work of libraries and others. This speaks in favour of keeping restrictions on speech to the absolute minimum necessary.

It is clear that judgements about where unpleasant speech becomes dangerous will vary. Neither banning all disagreeable speech (disagreeable to whom?), nor taking no steps to stop efforts to promote violence, are desirable.

Once again, there is a potential clash. How can we find the balance between the two rights?

Again, this is not a new issue. There are many laws which look to establish where the line between unpleasant and dangerous speech lies. Such laws should be clear and transparent, and of course proportionate in the limits they place on free speech.

A recent trend is the growing pressure on major internet companies to do more to prevent the spread of dangerous messages. Some are already acting to downgrade search results, or to slow the spread of this content.

However, this does imply leaving key decisions to private companies, with all the issues around transparency and oversight that this implies.

Meanwhile, libraries also have something to add to this discussion. Through their professionalism, and their ethics, they can make valuable judgements made about the way in which access is offered. For example, texts which do clearly incite discrimination and violence may not be suitable for pubic consultation, but could rather be restricted only to researchers.

At the same time, librarians may also need to defend books which others try to remove for a variety of reasons, in order to ensure that collections serve all of the community, not just the most vocal. Courage and careful reflection are both needed.


Cultural and Scientific Participation vs Creators’ Rights

Finally, there is the ongoing question of how to balance the right of everyone to participate in cultural life and benefit from scientific progress (Article 27a), and the right of creators to the moral and materials interests resulting from their work (Article 27b).

While the Universal Declaration does not make intellectual property rights a human right, it does provide a basis for this. What is certain is that an industry has developed around copyright, which provides a revenue to creators (although questions remain about how effectively it achieves this).

Meanwhile, there is the right to participate in cultural life. For those without the disposable income to buy books, or other cultural goods and services, there is a risk of being left out. For them, access needs to be free for it to be effective.

Once again, there is a tension – how to ensure that everyone can have access to culture and the results of research and innovation without limiting the revenues of creator?

Clearly, the work of libraries is only part of the picture here. The fairness of the distribution of revenues to creators is likely a bigger issue. And of course for scientific articles, the author is rarely paid at all, living rather off their institutional salary.

It is nonetheless true that, once libraries have bought works, they do then lend them out. Yet, there is no conclusive evidence suggesting that they reduce sales, but rather signs that they promote the discovery of new writers, as well as acting more generally to strengthen reading culture.

In this way, and as part of a broader cultural and research policy which ensures that authors themselves are primary beneficiaries (in line with Article 27b), libraries can also help resolve any potential conflict of rights here.


Guaranteeing human rights is not a simple task. This is both because of resistance from those who do not believe in them, but also because they do not always sit easily together.

Finding balance, as the Universal Declaration suggests, must be done carefully and proportionately, ensuring that any restrictions are as limited as possible.

Given that laws risk being a blunt instrument, and private solutions can lack legitimacy, the potential of libraries to find this middle way, at least in the examples given in this blog, should not be ignored.