This paper responds to questions of rights, poverty and social justice by revisiting the ‘generations’ of human rights. Seven decades after the UDHR, the world is witnessing a dehumanizing double movement of increasing rightlessness, and extreme inequalities of wealth and power. Critiques of liberal human rights find them ‘not enough’ to deliver social justice (Moyn 2018). However, the problem lies less in the liberal rhetoric of human rights universalism than what that rhetoric veils - an absence of human rights universalism in reality. Extreme poverty and injustice reflect repeated breaches of the basic ‘floor’ of laws, norms and values and failures to vindicate general duties towards fundamental principles of humanitarian conduct, equality, non-discrimination and rights. A post-human context sees redacted universalism coupled with legal, economic and technological utopianism. The combined threats of human instrumentalization and plutocratic domination are nontrivial. First generation civil and political rights are threatened by algocracy, second generation rights e.g. the right to health are threatened by pharmocracy, and third generation rights e.g. the right to a healthy environment are threatened by chemocracy.
The zeroth generation concept adapts the fictional zeroth Law of Robotics to express a precondition ‘zeroth’ generation of rights necessary to the three ‘generations’ of rights, specifying the common duty to vindicate humanity as such. This compels human rights to ‘give back the human’, re-setting human rights within the obligation of all parties (not only states) to protect humanity and its ‘safe operating space’. This zeroth generation is arguably central to the SDGs and the future of multilateralism. It concerns the core of the ‘social and international order’, expressed in UDHR Articles 28, 29 and 30. Collective duties towards humanity ultimately represent essential preconditions for a just international order that vindicates human rights and realises the potential of rights-based multilateral cooperation and sustainable development.