The concept of human rights is not a modern phenomenon. Through codes, decrees, or laws, rulers of empires in ancient India, Mesopotamia, and Persia, for example, established certain rights and privileges for their citizens. Also, some of the oldest written sources on rights and responsibilities are in the documents of many of the world’s major religions.
The modern notion of human rights gained strength during the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, as confidence in human reason increased. European philosophers, most notably John Locke, developed the concept of “natural rights” in the 17th and 18th centuries. Locke believed that people, as creatures of God, possessed certain rights by virtue of their humanity, regardless of race, culture, religion, or ethnicity. Natural rights further played a key role in the 18th- and 19th-century struggles against political absolutism and the divine right of kings, which restricted the principles of freedom and equality. The notion of natural rights, therefore, was important in the eventual development of human rights.
The term human rights is a relatively new one, gaining acceptance with the founding of the United Nations in 1945. This term replaced natural rights, partially because of the latter’s frequent association with religious orthodoxy and growing disenchantment with the term by philosophical and political liberals. Natural rights entailed a select few rights—such as Locke’s abstract notions of the rights to “life, liberty, and property”—which found similar expression in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. In comparison, the concept of human rights is much more diverse and specific. Adopted, in part, as a reaction to the atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 established what most nations would accept as the list of modern-day human rights.
Consisting of 30 articles, the UN Declaration of Human Rights lists the rights and fundamental freedoms to which all men and women, everywhere in the world, are entitled, “without any discrimination.” These specific rights fall into one of six sections: Security Rights protect against crimes (such as murder, torture, and rape); Due Process Rights protect against abuses of the legal system (imprisonment without trial, secret trials, and excessive punishments); Liberty Rights protect freedoms (such as belief, expression, association, assembly, and movement); Political Rights protect the liberty to participate in politics by communicating, assembling, protesting, voting, and serving in office; Equality Rights guarantee equal citizenship (i.e., equality before the law); and Social/ Welfare Rights are nondiscriminatory rights for all (such as education for all children and protection against starvation).
Additionally, human rights fall into two main subsections: negative and positive. Negative rights are primary or “first-generation rights” and generally encompass the idea that one is entitled not to be abused by another person or state. Such rights are embedded in the U.S. Bill of Rights, the English Bill of Rights, and the Canadian Charter of Rights. A common example is the notion that states should refrain from denying due process of law or equality to their citizens. A positive right (or “second-generation right”), however, is one that states or individuals are obligated to follow. Such positive rights include education, health care, and a minimum standard of living. To compare the two types of rights, consider the example of the right to life: A “negative right” to life would require a state or individual to refrain from killing or critically injuring someone; a “positive right” to life would require the state or individuals to act to save the life of someone who would otherwise die.
However, one must question the practicality and legitimation of some positive rights. For example, when a positive right of citizens to be provided with an adequate diet is not fundable or feasible, is the state committing a human rights violation? Should the state therefore take any surplus from selected individuals to provide for those who are starving? And if so, would that action not itself be a human rights violation against those whose property is taken? One might argue, therefore, that positive human rights have the tendency to be moralistic and for the collective good of societies.
At the national level, enacted laws and their enforcement, supported through judicial decisions, protect citizens’ human rights. On a global level, international law, supported through treaties, creates human rights norms and protection. However, even if a country adopts certain human rights laws, that does not ensure it will always follow those laws. And if a government were to break an international human rights law, what would be the consequence? Whose duty is it to intervene and enforce the rights upon that society?
Although human rights developed, in part, as a reaction to mistreatments of citizens by their state, obvious conflicts would arise if another state or international entity were to impose its own beliefs (cultural imperialism) on the perceived “rogue state.” One state cannot simply ignore state sovereignty and invade or attack another because of alleged or real human rights violations; this action would, itself, potentially be a human rights violation. Therefore, although international human rights organizations (such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House) document and report perceived human rights violations, no entity has the power to stop those violations. Short of warfare, the most common tactics employed by modern nation-states are economic sanctions, political pressure, and social ostracism.
A major criticism of human rights comes from its presumed moral foundation. Because cultural beliefs and morals vary among societies, the idea of human rights’ universalism becomes arguable. Although certain individuals or societies as a whole may embrace certain absolute moral or ethical practices, one must question what would occur if two such individuals or societies, with different beliefs and morals, clashed. The attempt to impose one’s beliefs on another has led to immeasurable violence and warfare throughout history. The most recent example is what Samuel Huntington calls a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the rest of the world, particularly Islam. Although Western religions and Islam essentially share the same roots and have a vast majority of shared beliefs and practices, the root of conflicts between these two entities appears to stem more from the cultural differences between, and practices of, traditional Western and Islamic states. Therefore, although a great consensus may exist among societies as to what constitutes a universal human right, trying to impose those beliefs on societies with different views may have negative and such potentially dire consequences as social unrest, anarchy, or warfare.
- Donnelly, Jack. 2005. Universal Human Rights. 3rd ed. Mumbai, India: Manas.
- Human Rights Watch. 2007. Human Rights Watch World Report 2007. Rev. ed. New York: Seven Stories Press.
- Ishay, Michael. 2004. The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Lauren, Paul Gordon. 2003. The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Steiner, Henry and Philip Alston. 2007. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
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