10 December 2021 will mark international Human Rights Day – the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948. This year’s theme has a strong focus on equality in advancing human rights, a topic closely aligned with libraries’ own mission to build opportunities for all.

Ahead of  Human Rights Day, we have summarised some key human rights discussions from the past months –  important conversations libraries can contribute to, and good library practices which help address today’s pressing human rights tasks.

Education. The impact of the pandemic on the right to education has been – and continues to be – profound, even characterised as the ‘largest disruption of education systems in history’. This includes, but is not limited to, students dropping out and even never returning to school, and the disproportionate losses around the educational rights of girls and other vulnerable or marginalised groups. Looking to the future , stakeholders highlight the importance of investing in education as a way to power economic development, peace, and recovery from the pandemic.

Other key focal discussions around the right to education include the role of connectivity and technological innovation in delivering on this right (and gaps which need to be addressed to do so equitably), as well as the importance of enriching educational experiences with local cultural sources (see e.g. the UN Human Rights Council Panel Discussion on Technical Cooperation in this field, and Special Rapporteur’s publication on the Right to Education as a Cultural Right).

  • The library field continues to work to address these dimensions – not least by facilitating and enabling access to learning materials. For example, an IFLA-ULIA submission to the Universal Periodic Review of Uganda notes that libraries tackle this in various ways, from providing remote access to digital materials and physical copies of self-study materials to help meet the demand, to offering technical means to follow classes (i.e. radio). In addition, whether it is school or public libraries, it is encouraging to see continued collaboration with formal primary and secondary educational institutions to facilitate students’ access to materials and learning opportunities – e.g. the continued work of mobile libraries in rural areas in Zimbabwe.
  • The submissions for Zimbabwe and Ireland UPRs also discuss the trends and good practices facilitating the right to education of people with disabilities. The submission for Ireland also highlights the work of libraries to support literacy as a distinct dimension of the right to education.

Health. Especially during the global pandemic, one of the key considerations highlighted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Special Rapporteur on the right to health was the deep interrelatedness of this right with other fundamental rights – from non-discrimination and security to safe water and sanitation. Other key priorities highlighted in 2021 in this field include health equity, sexual and reproductive health rights (see e.g. Special Rapporteur’s “Strategic Priorities of Work”), as well as mental health.

  • Libraries help deliver on this right by facilitating both access to health information and health literacy. UPR submissions for Ireland and Uganda, for instance, show the various forms this can take: a large-scale programme rolled out in public libraries across the country, activities implemented by individual libraries, or even collating relevant resources and making these more easily accessible and understandable.
  • Access to reproductive health information can merit particular consideration as well. As another IFLA submission to an OHCHR Special Rapporteur highlighted, some people reported experiencing insufficient access to quality SRHR information and learning during the pandemic, particularly as some of the usual sources – such as schools, community or non-governmental organisations – were less physically accessible. Simultaneously, some estimations suggest that users may have different levels of confidence in online SRHR information.

Freedom of Expression has come under unique pressure during the pandemic. Article 19 estimates that more people today live in countries experiencing a freedom of expression crisis, or where expression is highly restricted, than at any point the last decade. Predictably, one of the key challenges in this field continues to revolve around mis- and dis-information. As a new report by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression highlights, it is both disinformation itself and some of the prominent responses to it, from internet shutdowns and broadly-defined laws criminalising speech, to big platforms’ opaque and inconsistent content moderation policies and practices – that undermine freedom of expression.

In light of these, the report reiterates that access to reliable and diverse information sources and digital literacy are among the key ways to address and build resilience against disinformation. Importantly, the latter needs to be available for users of various ages, young and old; and to be paired with digital inclusion efforts to ensure that more users have meaningful access to electronic information sources other than zero-rating social media and messengers.

  • IFLA’s contribution to the call for inputs for this report further explores the potential of digital literacy and access to information as key responses to misinformation. It notes in particular that access to quality digital content can be significantly impacted by users’ price sensitivity, and highlights the importance of equitable and open MIL learning opportunities alongside formal curriculums – and ways to tailor, replicate and adapt such MIL training models.

Civic space and participation in public affairs. Already at the beginning of 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for, inter alia, strengthening public participation for future recovery, in order to build policies which most effectively meet people’s needs.

Stakeholders estimate that even before the pandemic, civic space had been shrinking globally. One of the key current questions in this area is whether COVID-related measures temporarily impacting civic engagement are also mirrored by an emergence of new digital spaces promoting it. Another urgent priority is the need to build new approaches to facilitating the participation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in public affairs (as mentioned e.g. in Our Common Agenda).

Bringing it all together: access to information and the right to development. Finally, another submission to OHCHR gives an opportunity to look at the role of access to information – and libraries’ facilitation of it – on the enjoyment of rights overall,  from socioeconomic to political. From the right to work to the right to participate in the cultural life, there are examples of libraries leveraging access to information and ICTs to help deliver on these fundamental rights.

Libraries also know very well that not all community members may benefit from such opportunities equally – and continue to work to address this. These challenges were at the heart of another submission to OHCHR, focusing on minorities, development and equal participation.

This input outlined inequalities in access to information (i.e. to connectivity, to relevant content, to information crucial for wellbeing and the realisation of fundamental rights) that various minority groups experience – and some good practices from the library field aiming to help address them. These include, for instance, initiatives focusing on the information needs of linguistic, cultural, ethnic or other minorities – from public access to the internet to learning materials in minority languages – as well as activities focusing on inclusion and empowerment.

The theme of the 2021 Human Rights Day is ‘Reducing Inequalities’. From digital literacy to health information to education, libraries have shown great versatility in their work to help make sure that as many members of their communities as possible enjoy their fundamental rights. We look forward to continuing the discussion about key trends, good practices and lessons learned on 10 December – and beyond!