CBC Docs Specials·Story

Upholding human rights in the face of a changing world

Canadian scholar Michael Ignatieff speaks with Peter Mansbridge about the current state of human rights in our world.

In Search of a Perfect World: Michael Ignatieff

4 years ago
Duration 0:42
as president of the Central European University in Hungary, Canadian Michael Ignatieff is seeing the pressures of a nationalist government first-hand. Human rights are in place to cut against the "us not them" instinct.

After the atrocities of the Holocaust and the Second World War, representatives from around the world came together to establish a common global standard for fundamental freedoms and human rights.

On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly galvanized those freedoms by creating a milestone document: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

With the wounds of global injustice still fresh on the world's conscience, the document was seen as the foundation of future freedom, peace and justice. The fundamental rights laid down in the Declaration's 30 brief articles apply to all humans and are a recognition of the inherent dignity in each of us.

Yet as Peter Mansbridge investigates in the CBC Docs special presentation In Search of a Perfect World, there are millions of humans living today who have never attained these universal rights or their benefits. And in some countries, the rise of authoritarian leadership is putting the rights of people do have them in peril.

In Budapest, Hungary, the Central European University has a mission to defend free and open societies, and welcomes graduate students from 120 countries. But the Hungarian government is increasingly at odds with the school's liberal position.

Canadian scholar and former Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff is president of the school and is watching the government's grip tighten. "These single-party states want to control everything," he says. "They want to control the courts. [...] They want to reduce the space for civil society. They want to, if possible, eliminate a free press."

Much of that authoritarianism has gained traction as the amount of asylum seekers entering Europe has substantially increased. Hostile reactions to the influx have contributed to the rise of nationalism in many countries, including Hungary. This pushback is why we need a Declaration in the first place, says Ignatieff.

"We have a deeply built-in moral preference for us, not them. For our citizens not for strangers. And the whole function of human rights, I think, is to cut against that."

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Univeral Declaration of Human Rights, and recent global injustices have some questioning how well we are stacking up to its ideals.

Indeed, there are still swathes of people who do not have the basic rights set out in the Declaration, and some are losing the rights they once possessed. However, Ignatieff says that the standard principles of the Declaration are no less powerful today, as they remind us that we still have much work to do. "Every favela-dweller or illegal-settlement dweller I [have] met knows that they matter, knows they count, knows they ought to count [and] knows that they ought to have rights," he says.

"I think if you went back eighty years, and talked to the same people, that consciousness of rights wouldn't have been there."

Watch In Search of a Perfect World on CBC Gem.