Human Rights Series

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Thoughts on the History of Human Rights

In a previous article (“Human Rights: Thoughts on their Authority and Limits”) in this series, it became clear that human rights cannot be divorced from their history. Speaking about them necessarily involves reference to certain historical documents that have developed into authoritative sources to which arguments and descriptions need to appeal. The most important of these are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and Articles 55 and 56 of the United Nations Charter, formulated three years earlier. That in itself makes it important to bear the history of the idea in mind. But also the insight that such momentous achievements of humankind do not merely come into existence on the spur of a moment or without the momentum created by the impact of precursors over time. This insight is logical and simple enough. At first sight, the idea of the “history” of human rights seems quite straightforward and simple. But there are several things to be clarified before providing a historical sketch.

1. Human rights are as old as the human species

Since the concept of human rights as used in international discourse is founded on the substantiation that these rights pertain to the essence of being human, it follows that they always existed wherever humans existed. That means that they are as old as humankind. Regardless of whether others are aware of them or acknowledge them, they are inalienable rights of humans. Realising this basic historical insight has practical significance, since it means that human rights do not need to be created or defined into existence, but they have to be discovered and acknowledged. Only then can they be respected and applied.

This makes for a difficulty as well. If human rights are older than those who first thought about them within the frameworks of their own cultures and religions, then it becomes difficult to visualise and apply culturally diversified human rights. That is, to have some human rights for some people and other human rights for others. It cannot, for instance, be a human right that only in some cultures women enjoy non-discrimination concerning, say, education or marriage choice, but not in other cultures. This implication of the historical dimension still needs much thought in the international discourse.

2. Human law gravitates towards the concept of human rights

To claim the accolade of “the first formulation of human rights” for certain ancient law codices rather than for others means little for the authority of human rights (see below). There may be some legal stipulations in codices – such as that of Cyrus the Great – which resemble modern ideas more than others do. But law generally defines the rights of humans and their obligations. If theft and murder are prohibited, people are protected by the right to life and property by being withheld from infringing on the same rights of others. It will be easy to find laws in ancient codices that can be construed as the “earliest expressions of human rights.” Nevertheless, the positive side of this historical discernment is that even the earliest law codices tend to show understanding that human society needs authoritative formulation of the rights of people. This is not evidence of any awareness of intrinsic rights of all people, but it does adumbrate a consciousness that could develop in that direction. However “primitive,” these are the first steps towards what has become the reflection on human rights as we understand the term and its intentions today.

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3. Precursors of the modern concept of human rights

Cyrus the Great. Image: User Coyau on Wikimedia Commons

Cyrus the Great. Image: User Coyau on Wikimedia Commons

Cyrus Cylinder. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cyrus Cylinder. Image by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net), via Wikimedia Commons

Cyrus the Great

It is often claimed that the decrees of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire in the sixth century BCE, show him to also be the founder of human rights. Some of the cuneiform decrees on the so-called Cyrus Cylinder indeed show a marked resemblance to ideals today regarded as human rights in terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For instance the freeing of (at least some) slaves and the introduction of religious freedom. This entails some of the policies that gave the exiled Jews in Mesopotamia the freedom to return to their country and to practise their religion. But they were rights promulgated in terms of Cyrus’s policy to keep a huge empire intact and not because these rights were deemed inherent to the human condition. Therefore they can at best be described as rights granted to people in terms of imperial policy, rather than as rights of humans founded on their humanness. Nevertheless, such laws did adumbrate what was to come millennia later.

King John refuses to sign the Magna Charta when first presented with it. Image: John Cassell (Internet Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King John refuses to sign the Magna Charta when first presented with it. Image: John Cassell (Internet Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Great Charter of England

The Great Charter of England (usually called the Magna Charta) constitutes a significant stage in the eventual evolution of human rights. Although far from complete or perfect (for instance in the matter of slavery), it did achieve the establishment of such basic rights as the right to property, equality before the law, protection against unreasonable taxes and even limited rights for widows. In 1215, these and similar rights were achieved against the will of King John, who was forced by his dissatisfied subjects to accept the Charter.

Petition of Right. Image: Parliament of England, via Wikimedia Commons

Petition of Right. Image: Parliament of England, via Wikimedia Commons

Petition of Right (1628)

Some four centuries later, the English parliament confronted King Charles I with the so-called Petition of Right (1628). This established the principles of parliamentary control of taxes, no arbitrary imprisonment, no quartering of troops at the expense of ordinary people and no martial law in peacetime. Again, these rights were not universal human rights, but were forced upon a tyrannical king who had no regard for the people he saw as his “subjects.”

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Declaration of Independence (1776)

A major step forward was again brought about by opposition to the tyranny of an English monarch. This took the form of the Declaration of Independence authored by Thomas Jefferson (1776). It focused on the necessity of respect for the rights of individual people and substantiated the right of revolution. It formed a basis for the Constitution of the United States of America and therefore exercised major historical influence.

The Constitution of the United States of America. Image: Constitutional Convention (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Constitution of the United States of America. Image: Constitutional Convention (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Constitution of the United States of America (1787)

The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) provided basic rights of American citizens. A number of amendments called the Bill of Rights came into effect in 1791 and contained several rights that still belong to the core of what human rights have come to mean after the Second World War. Among these are the rights of freedom of speech, religion, assembly and petition – and also the right to possess and bear arms, which is becoming progressively controversial in light of the ease with which this right can be used to obtain the means to murder.

Declaration of the Rights of Humans and Citizens. Image: Jean-Jacques-François le Barbier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Declaration of the Rights of Humans and Citizens. Image: Jean-Jacques-François le Barbier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Declaration of the Rights of Humans and Citizens (1789)

Between the two American documents just mentioned comes the equally famous Declaration of the Rights of Humans and Citizens adopted in 1789 by the French National Constituent Assembly. The declaration states that “natural rights” are those of liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression (cf. the motto of the French Revolution, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”). The fact that they are deemed to be natural rights of humans shows that they come close to the concept underlying the Universal Declaration of the twentieth century, which is the notion of inherent human rights. A further interesting historical fact is that the French Declaration expressly states that the “natural rights” of any person are limited by the rights of others to enjoy the same (see Paragraph 4 of the article about the authority and limits of human rights). Although their terminology was different, the French lawmakers clearly noticed basic tenets of modern human rights.

The Signing of the Geneva Convention. Image: Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Signing of the Geneva Convention. Image: Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Geneva Convention (1864)

Several conventions covering specific aspects of human rights followed in the nineteenth century. The best known of these is the Geneva Convention of 1864 and its later amendments, by which a number of European countries and American states agreed on the principles of non-discriminatory treatment of military wounded and respect for medical vehicles marked with a red cross.

William Wilberforce. Image: H. Rousseau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Wilberforce. Image: H. Rousseau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Still some deficiencies, e.g. slavery

Nevertheless, there still remained many deficiencies in the countries where this history was played out. Despite the enlightened ideas informing the American and French Revolutions, slavery was still rife and considered acceptable in both America and Europe and there was no question of universal suffrage. The impetus of movements in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the abolition of slavery and somewhat later for the right of women to vote should not be underestimated. Humanistic (James Oglethorpe) and religious (the Quaker Movement, William Wilberforce and others) arguments for the abolition of slavery were so powerful that they could not be stopped in their quest to bring slaves the fruits of the human right to freedom. This was only achieved in the nineteenth century – against great resistance. Universal suffrage was not only a matter of disenfranchisement of women, but often also on the grounds of race. The many movements involved in efforts to achieve the right to vote for all irrespective of gender or race played a large part in the advancement of the overall human rights cause. But it took long to achieve. Some, as the women’s movement, had piecemeal success since the eighteen-nineties (when New Zealand gave women the vote) and well into the twentieth century. Others, such as the American Civil Rights Movement, only reached their goals for black people in the nineteen-sixties and yet others, such as the opponents of apartheid in South Africa, as late as 1994. The consistent power of such initiatives within civil society is eloquent proof of the historical thrust towards the attainment of full recognition for human rights.

4. The United Nations Charter and Declaration of the nineteen-forties

Signing of the UN Declaration. Image: United Nations [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Signing of the UN Declaration. Image: United Nations [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The pinnacle of the historical development was reached in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when the United Nations Charter (1945) fixed the principle of worldwide human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) developed it. These, as well as the series of international treaties that came into being in their wake, represent the final phase of the historical development (they have already been discussed in the first article of this series, see above on this site).

However, the situation thus achieved is not “final” in the sense of “completed” or “perfect.” Although many refinements and clarifications have been forthcoming and made legally enforceable, the disrespect and disregard for human rights is common in many countries. For instance, issues such as women’s rights and non-discrimination on the grounds of religion, gender, disability or age are still areas where huge challenges call out to be taken seriously in large swathes of the world. Some examples that spring to mind are the death penalty for so-called “apostasy” in certain Muslim countries, female genital mutilation in many African countries, discrimination on the job market against older people seeking to keep their employment or find work, which is just as much a problem in Western democracies thinking of themselves as developed. Even war crimes and genocide have remained a topical aspect involving human rights, for instance as events in Turkey have shown and, in recent history, the atrocities in Rwanda, the Balkans and the systematic wiping out of white farmers in South Africa.

The history of human rights shows a gradual development of the awareness of such rights over the centuries. Usually this was a matter of specific issues such as slavery or workers’ rights, while others, such as discrimination against women and people other than white, had to wait longer to be addressed, albeit piecemeal. But human rights history also shows that, for all their deficiencies, these precursors were important movers in the overall development towards full recognition and application of human rights in the world. If this is encouraging in itself, perhaps the most encouraging trait of the history of human rights is that the issue has almost always been driven by individuals and popular movements. It is they who have confronted powers that be, forced reflection on the issue and prepared the ground for authorities to act. Therefore the further fact that the advancement of human rights is today mostly carried by non-governmental organisations only reflects the thrust of history, which gives hope for the long way still ahead.