You are on page 1of 5

A Brief History of Human Rights

Societies have located the beginnings of human rights in religious

documents. The Vedas, the Bible, the Qur'an and the Analects of
Confucius are some of the oldest written sources which address
questions of people’s duties, rights, and responsibilities. Some early
reforms were reflected in the biblical books of Chronicles and Ezra,
which state that Cyrus released the followers of Judaism from slavery
and allowed them to migrate back to their land.

A few centuries later, the Mauryan Empire of ancient India established

unprecedented principles of civil rights in the 3rd century BC under the
reign of Ashoka the Great. The unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of
animals was immediately abolished, such as sport hunting and
branding. Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing
them outside one day each year, and offered common citizens free
education at universities. He treated his subjects as equals regardless
of their religion, politics or caste, and constructed free hospitals for
both humans and animals.

In 1215 King John of England issued the Magna Carta, a document

forced upon him by the Pope and English barons, which required him to
renounce certain rights, respect certain legal procedures and accept
that the will of the king could be bound by law.

Two major revolutions occurred in the United States (1776) and in

France (1789). The United States Declaration of Independence includes
concepts of natural rights and famously states "that all men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain
unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen approved by the

National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789 Declaration of the Rights
of Man and of the Citizen approved by the National Assembly of France,
August 26, 1789

Similarly, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

defines a set of individual and collective rights of the people. These are
held to be universal - not only to French citizens but to all men without

United States Supreme Court Justice Davis Davis, in his 1867 opinion
for Ex Parte Milligan, wrote "By the protection of the law, human rights
are secured; withdraw that protection and they are at the mercy of
wicked rulers or the clamor of an excited people."
Many groups and movements have managed to achieve profound
social changes over the course of the 20th century in the name of
human rights. In Western Europe and North America, labour unions
brought about laws granting workers the right to strike, establishing
minimum work conditions and forbidding or regulating child labour. The
women's rights movement succeeded in gaining for many women the
right to vote. National liberation movements in many countries
succeeded in driving out colonial powers. One of the most influential
was Mahatma Gandhi's movement to free his native India from British
rule. Movements by long-oppressed racial and religious minorities
succeeded in many parts of the world, among them the civil rights
movement, and more recent diverse identity politics movements, on
behalf of women and minorities in the United States.

Human rights are sometimes divided into negative and positive rights.
"Negative" human rights, which follow mainly from the Anglo-American
legal tradition, are rights that a government and/or private entities
may not take action to remove. For example, right to life and security
of person; freedom from slavery; equality before the law and due
process under the rule of law; freedom of movement; freedoms of
speech, religion, assembly; the right to bear arms.

"Positive" human rights mainly follow from the Rousseauian

Continental European legal tradition and denote rights that the state is
obliged to protect and provide. Examples of such rights include: the
rights to education, to health care, to a livelihood. Positive rights have
been codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in
many 20th-century constitutions.

Some human rights are said to be "inalienable rights." This is not a

term that has a precise meaning today, but is a term from English
property law, used metaphorically, and is usually a reference to the
Declaration of Independence, emphasizing the importance of a claimed

Criticism of human rights

One of the arguments made against the concept of human rights is

that it suffers from cultural imperialism. In particular, the concept of
human rights is fundamentally rooted in a politically liberal outlook
which, although generally accepted in Western Europe, Japan, India
and North America, is not necessarily taken as standard elsewhere. An
appeal is often made to the fact that influential human rights thinkers,
such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, have all been Western and
indeed that some were involved in the running of Empires themselves.
The cultural imperialism argument achieves even greater potency
when it is made on the basis of religion. Some histories of human
rights emphasise the Christian influence on the agenda and then
question whether this is in keeping with the tenets of other world

Yet, some feel that the cultural imperialism argument is not entirely
factual. While Western political philosophers like Locke, Hobbes and
Mill made important contributions to the development of modern
notions of human rights, the concept of human rights itself has origins
in many world cultures and religions, including Christian, Jewish and
Islamic traditions. Additionally, this argument leads to absolute
relativism if taken too far. If all viewpoints and moral frameworks are
equally valid then one cannot condemn any behaviour, however
outrageous or horrific. In practice, human rights offer a basis to
criticise such behavior or conduct, including imperialism. As such,
human rights can be a transformative tool for self-determination.

One way out of the cultural imperialism and relativism debate is to

argue that the body of human rights exists in a hierarchy or can
undergo derogation. The relationship between different rights is
complex since it can be argued that some are mutually reinforcing or
supportive. For example, political rights, such as the right to hold
office, cannot be fully exercised without other social and cultural pre-
requisites, such as a decent education. Whether the latter should
therefore be included as a first-generation right is a debated point.

A set of debating points revolves around the question of who has the
duty to uphold human rights. Human rights have historically arisen
from the need to protect citizens from abuse by the state and this
might suggest that all mankind has a duty to intervene and protect
people wherever they are. Divisive national loyalties, which emphasise
differences between people rather than their similarities, can thus be
seen as a destructive influence on the human rights movement
because they deny people's innately similar human qualities. But
others argue that state sovereignty is paramount, not least because it
is often the state that has signed up to human rights treaties in the
first place. Commentators' positions in the argument for and against
intervention and the use of force by states are influenced by whether
they believe human rights are largely a legal or moral duty and
whether they are of more cosmopolitan or nationalist persuasion.

Violations of human rights

Human rights Violation is abuse of people in a way that it abuses any

fundamental human rights. It is a term used when a government
violates national or international law related to the protection of human

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, fundamental

human rights are violated when, among other things:

* A certain race, creed, or group is denied recognition as a "person".

(Articles 2 & 6)
* Men and women are not treated as equal. (Article 2)
* Different racial or religious groups are not treated as equal. (Article
* Life, liberty or security of person are threatened. (Article 3)
* A person is sold as or used as a slave. (Article 4)
* Cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment is used on a person (such
as torture or execution). (Article 5) (See also Prisoners' rights)
* Victims of abuse are denied an effective judicial remedy. (Article 8)
* Punishments are dealt arbitrarily or unilaterally, without a proper
and fair trial. (Article 11)
* Arbitrary interference into personal, or private lives by agents of
the state. (Article 12)
* Citizens are forbidden to leave or return to their country. (Article
* Freedom of speech or religion are denied. (Articles 18 & 19)
* The right to join a trade union is denied. (Article 23)
* Education is denied. (Article 26)


Human rights violations and abuses include those documented by non-

governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, Human
Rights Watch, World Organisation Against Torture, Freedom House,
International Freedom of Expression Exchange and Anti-Slavery

Some people believe human rights abuses are more common in

dictatorships or theocracies than in democracies because freedom of
speech and freedom of the press tend to uncover state orchestrated
abuse and expose it. Nonetheless human rights abuses do occur in
democracies. For example, the Macpherson report found that the
British police had been institutionally racist in the handling of the
death of Stephen Lawrence. Also Amnesty International has called the
running of Guantanamo Bay detainment camp by the United States "a
human rights scandal" in a series of reports .

In over 90 countries National human rights institutions (NHRIs) have

been set up to protect, promote or monitor human rights in a given
country. There are now over 90 such bodies. Not all of them are
compliant with the United Nations standards as set out in the 1993
Paris Principles, but the amount and effect of these institutions is