By Estela Cammarota, Alejandra Portatadino y Natalia Zlachevsky
Translated by Laura Fijtey and Gabriela Llull. Corrected by Ana Massa.
When we talk about human rights, we refer to those we have just because we are human beings. They are irrefutable, inalienable (they cannot be removed) and universal: no distinction is made with regard to nationality, place of residence, sex, gender, ethnicity, colour, religion, language, political opinion, property or any other condition. They are interconnected, interdependent, and indivisible, and they are expressed and guaranteed by means of laws. Furthermore, governments must take positive measures to enable full access and enjoyment of basic human rights.
Since the beginning of modernity, the world has moved forward in a direction where individual interests have a larger relevance over collective rights. This has brought more liberties for people, but also the destitution of the common good. In an ever more unequal world, the human rights approach is a tool to guarantee a framework of common and universal values that, somehow, questions a society model that does not privilege the well-being of some of its citizens.
Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the human rights scope has been widened and strengthened by means of several international conventions, declarations and treaties, in an ongoing dialogue with those realities that have led to its proclamation. This declaration started with the protection of people’s physical integrity, and then included considerations linked to well-being, health and equality of opportunities.
Thus, for example, the right to drinking water and sanitation was declared as a human right in 2010 with the acknowledgement of diseases directly associated to the lack of access to water. Besides, there is a current debate on the global acknowledgement to the right to live in a healthy environment, as a result of the exposure to pollution and the environmental damage generated by densely populated cities.
Although references to human rights are usually diffuse, reality shows that they are exercised in a very concrete manner, and that their effective enforcement relies on a network of different disciplines, such as law, science, engineering and social sciences. Legislating for, protecting, promoting and developing human rights are intertwined actions.
However, gearing these fields of knowledge towards the fulfillment of rights requires revising many of their foundational paradigms. In this sense, guaranteeing the right to water, health, justice, work or education entails executing engineering works, but —at the same time— it implies challenging the development process of these works.
Engineering with a human rights approach means not only completing works to fulfill those rights, but also considering the cross-cutting dimensions that may be involved from the beginning to the end of a project: incorporation of recipients’ voices in the different stages, non-discrimination, gender equality (taking into account the different impact of the works on the lives of both men and women), transparency in funds management, recognition of local knowledge, and inclusion of other disciplines, such as the technical knowledge needed to design and implement projects with social impact.
Thus, when engineering is aimed at fulfilling fundamental human rights, its origins and some of its assumptions should be carefully revised: conceiving development as a one-way movement towards economic growth by means of technology, treating human beings as resources, or looking at efficiency as the success criterion of all human endeavors. So, in a way, engineering aimed at the fulfillment of human rights implies redirecting and deconstructing, which will result in new options to solve the common problems of an unequal world that is desperate for sweeping transformation.