Courtesy: The World Economic Forum

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948 and signed by an unprecedented 192 countries, embraces a universal set of principles that can be applied across variable cultures.

The UDHR was adopted by the United Nations at a time when the world was reeling from the discovery of the full horror of the Holocaust, and there was a global desire to create a new more hopeful future for humanity. It was designed, first and foremost, as an expression of global values, as observed by Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, member of the drafting sub-committee:

“I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing.”

Equality, fairness and justice 

The UDHR set out universal standards which have supported, to date, efforts by states and others to develop laws and policies relating to a range of issues, from criminal justice to the environment, from global development to trade, from security to migration.

The UDHR and the series of legally binding treaties that have elaborated on its provisions provide an essential foundation for private and international organizations and states to promote equality, fairness and justice in a people- and planet-centered innovation agenda, driven by new and enhanced technologies.

Though these global rights standards were adopted by states to govern official conduct, increasingly they are being applied to the private sector. For example global companies seeking to address labour rights issues in their global supply chains, or information and communications companies grappling with privacy and free expression issues, are being called on to address these concerns using a rights framework. Similarly, though the technology of gene-editing is startlingly new and exciting, human rights standards can help us address the governance choices we face as we balance efforts to alleviate human suffering, and the risks and uncertainties inherent in the application of new scientific tools.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution needs to be grounded in a discussion of broader questions about the societies in which we wish to live. Today, the possibilities for human empowerment brought by technology are immense, but we must continue to focus on the impact of technologies on people, their everyday lives and their enjoyment of human rights.

No longer is this exclusively the domain of states and international organizations. The private sector must take a leadership role. As a starting point, private organizations and their stakeholders should review their values as against the UDHR and related human rights standards and develop mechanisms against which they can measure and assess their conduct.

This article was first published in Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.