HISTORY OF UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS - UP TO WW2
by Moira Rayner
Human rights are rights possessed by people simply as, and because they are, human beings. The term has only come into common currency during the 20th century.
The idea of 'human rights' is not universal - it is essentially the product of 17th and 18th century European thought. Even the idea of 'rights' does not necessarily exist in every society or advanced civilisation. Rights are not the same thing as standards of behaviour punishable or required by rules, which can be fundamentally unfair to individuals, or used to oppress minority interests.
The earliest rules about standards of behaviour among people dealt with prescribing or prohibiting conduct that experience proved was likely to lead to conflict. There were great lawmakers - the Roman, Justinian, for one, who published his great Codex of various laws in the early 6th century -who tried to establish a cohesive schemes of rights and duties. The great religions of the world - Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and others - have all sought to establish comprehensive, coherent moral codes of conduct based on divine law. All contain profound ideas on the dignity of the human being , and are concerned with the duties and obligations of man to his fellow human beings, to nature and indeed to God and the whole of creation.
But until the 17th century such attempts to establish a framework for such rules, laws and codes, whether in social, legal, secular or theological debate, emphasised duties and privileges that arose from peoples' status or relationships, rather than abstract rights that, philosophically, preceded or underlay those relations or laws.
Then, attention moved from social responsibilities to the individual's needs and participation. It was seen as fundamental to the well-being of society, under the influence of philosophers such as Grotius, Hobbes and Locke, Then, these rights were called 'natural' rights, or 'the rights of man'. These natural or moral rights became part of the political agenda. They spread as the economic frontiers came down.
One of the first, and most important, battles was about politics. Could 'natural rights' be handed over to rulers? People in their 'natural' condition have unlimited freedom. If they choose to be ruled, they surrender either all, or some at least of this 'natural right' to their king or government, in exchange for civil society and peace. If they could surrender 'all', then people could be subjected to absolute government authority, and be under an absolute duty to obey. If only some could be surrendered, then the question is what part of those freedoms do we give up?
This issue became a tremendous cause in 17th century England. The protection of the people's rights (especially the right to political participation, and freedom of religious belief and observance) against an oppressive government was the catchcry of the English Revolution of 1640 (which led to rebel leader Oliver Cromwell heading the government, and the King being executed). It was also the catchcry for the rebellion against the civil administration - the 'Glorious Revolution' - of 1688 which saw another King on the throne, but also led to the English Bill of Rights, in 1689.
The Bill of Rights dealt with the fundamental concerns of the time. It made the King subject to the rule of law, like any citizen, instead of claiming to be the law's (divine) source. It required the King to respect the power of Parliament - elected by the people, with the power to control the state's money and property. It protected some basic rights to justice - excessive bail or fines, cruel and unusual punishments and unfair trials: it guaranteed juries, impartial courts and independent judges. It repeated some of royal promises made by King John, under duress, in the Magna Carta (though Magna Carta was intended to benefit the privileges of the aristocracy of the time, not the whole population). It also established the people's preferred Protestant religion, at a time when having a Catholic King was thought to endanger the sovereignty of England. The Pope, in those days, was still a relatively powerful ruler of a foreign country.
Towards the end of the 18th century, according to the philosopher John Locke, it was argued that it was part of God's natural law that no-one should harm anybody else in their life, health, liberty or possessions. These rights could never be given up. The existence of this natural law also established the right to do whatever was necessary to protect such rights.
This view limited the role of government. No-one could be subjected to another's rule unless they consented. A government's responsibility became the duty to protect natural rights. This limited what it could legitimately do and gave its citizens the right to defy and overthrow a government that overstepped its 'legitimate' authority.
This thinking underlay the American colonies' Declaration of Independence in 1776. This not only asserted that governments were established by the consent of the people to protect rights, but unforgettably expressed these rights in the terms that:
'all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'
Governments that did not carry out their protective role could be overthrown.
Sadly, the Declaration did not, in fact, extend human rights to all human beings. The first US Constitution expressly preserved the institution of slavery and did not recognise the equal rights of women. Many 'rights' were added to the US Constitution over the next 150 years: the Equal Rights Amendment, designed to give women equality was defeated in a referendum just this decade.
In 1788, as a result of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens asserted the primacy of natural rights in similarly inspirational terms to the US Declaration of Independence.
Yet in the Terror that soon followed the Revolution, with all its hopes, thousands unjustly lost their lives or suffered greatly in the name of 'Liberty.'
The doctrines of human rights that we now have are direct descendants of this thinking. The disparity in rights protection in practice reflected the society of the time.
A human right is 'natural' in that every one owns them, not because they are subject to any particular system of law or religious or political administration. They can be asserted against individuals, but they express the political objective: that governments must respect, protect and promote them.
The greatest 20th century statements of 'natural' or human rights can be dated to 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This preceded a range of international Conventions, Covenants, Declarations and other treaties that have followed the tradition. Most came from the United Nations. But other groups have also adopted human rights standards. The European community, for example, has adopted a Convention on Human Rights. Many nations have incorporated rights into their national constitutions - acknowledging that the rights exist, not that they are created by their laws.
The most common 'universal' rights are the right to life; to freedom; to own property (limiting where government may intrude); citizenship rights (voting, nationality and participation in public life); rights to standards of good behaviour by governments (or protection of the rule of law), and social, economic and cultural rights. The latter have become important during the 20th century, and raise important and still controversial issues about social justice and the distribution of wealth.
Universal human rights are, historically, the flower of what was originally a European plant. They have now received the support of world nations. Respect for human rights is becoming a universal principle of good government.
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