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Human Rights

Human rights are norms that aspire to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses. Examples of human rights are the right to freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial when charged with a crime, the right not to be tortured, and the right to education.

The philosophy of human rights addresses questions about the existence, content, nature, universality, justification, and legal status of human rights. The strong claims often made on behalf of human rights (for example, that they are universal, inalienable, or exist independently of legal enactment as justified moral norms) have frequently provoked skeptical doubts and countering philosophical defenses (on these critiques see Lacrois and Pranchere 2016, Mutua 2008, and Waldron 1988). Reflection on these doubts and the responses that can be made to them has become a sub-field of political and legal philosophy with a very substantial literature (see the Bibliography below).

This entry addresses the concept of human rights, the existence and grounds of human rights, the question of which rights are human rights, and relativism about human rights.

1. The General Idea of Human Rights

2.1 how can human rights exist, 2.2 normative justifications for human rights, 2.3 political conceptions of human rights, 3.1 civil and political rights, 3.2 social rights, 3.3 rights of women, minorities, and groups, 3.4 environmental rights, 4. universal human rights in a world of diverse beliefs and practices, bibliography: books and articles in the philosophy of human rights, recent collections, guides to international human rights law, other resources, related entries.

This section attempts to explain the general idea of human rights by identifying four defining features. The goal is to answer the question of what human rights are with a description of the core concept rather than a list of specific rights. Two people can have the same general idea of human rights even though they disagree about which rights belong on a list of such rights and even about whether universal moral rights exist. The four-part explanation below attempts to cover all kinds of human rights including both moral and legal human rights and both old and new human rights (e.g., both Lockean natural rights and contemporary human rights). The explanation anticipates, however, that particular kinds of human rights will have additional features. Starting with this general concept does not commit us to treating all kinds of human rights in a single unified theory (see Buchanan 2013 for an argument that we should not attempt to theorize together universal moral rights and international legal human rights).

(1) Human rights are rights . Lest we miss the obvious, human rights are rights (see Cruft 2012 and the entry on rights ). Most if not all human rights are claim rights that impose duties or responsibilities on their addressees or dutybearers. Rights focus on a freedom, protection, status, or benefit for the rightholders (Beitz 2009). The duties associated with human rights often require actions involving respect, protection, facilitation, and provision. Rights are usually mandatory in the sense of imposing duties on their addressees, but some legal human rights seem to do little more than declare high-priority goals and assign responsibility for their progressive realization. One can argue, of course, that goal-like rights are not real rights, but it may be better to recognize that they comprise a weak but useful notion of a right (See Beitz 2009 for a defense of the view that not all human rights are rights in a strong sense. And see Feinberg 1973 for the idea of “manifesto rights”). A human rights norm might exist as (a) a shared norm of actual human moralities, (b) a justified moral norm supported by strong reasons, (c) a legal right at the national level (where it might be referred to as a “civil” or “constitutional” right), or (d) a legal right within international law. A human rights advocate might wish to see human rights exist in all four ways (See Section 2.1 How Can Human Rights Exist?).

(2) Human rights are plural . If someone accepted that there are human rights but held that there is only one of them, this might make sense if she meant that there is one abstract underlying right that generates a list of specific rights (See Dworkin 2011 for a view of this sort). But if this person meant that there is just one specific right such as the right to peaceful assembly this would be a highly revisionary view. Human rights address a variety of specific problems such as guaranteeing fair trials, ending slavery, ensuring the availability of education, and preventing genocide. Some philosophers advocate very short lists of human rights but nevertheless accept plurality (see Cohen 2004, Ignatieff 2004).

(3) Human rights are universal . All living humans—or perhaps all living persons —have human rights. One does not have to be a particular kind of person or a member of some specific nation or religion to have human rights. Included in the idea of universality is some conception of independent existence . People have human rights independently of whether they are found in the practices, morality, or law of their country or culture. This idea of universality needs several qualifications, however. First, some rights, such as the right to vote, are held only by adult citizens or residents and apply only to voting in one’s own country. Second, the human right to freedom of movement may be taken away temporarily from a person who is convicted of committing a serious crime. And third, some human rights treaties focus on the rights of vulnerable groups such as minorities, women, indigenous peoples, and children.

(4) Human rights have high-priority . Maurice Cranston held that human rights are matters of “paramount importance” and their violation “a grave affront to justice” (Cranston 1967). If human rights did not have high priority they would not have the ability to compete with other powerful considerations such as national stability and security, individual and national self-determination, and national and global prosperity. High priority does not mean, however, that human rights are absolute. As James Griffin says, human rights should be understood as “resistant to trade-offs, but not too resistant” (Griffin 2008). Further, there seems to be priority variation within human rights. For example, when the right to life conflicts with the right to privacy, the latter will generally be outweighed.

Let’s now consider five other features or functions that might be added.

Should human rights be defined as inalienable? Inalienability does not mean that rights are absolute or can never be overridden by other considerations. Rather it means that its holder cannot lose it temporarily or permanently by bad conduct or by voluntarily giving it up. It is doubtful that all human rights are inalienable in this sense. One who endorses both human rights and imprisonment as punishment for serious crimes must hold that people’s rights to freedom of movement can be forfeited temporarily or permanently by just convictions of serious crimes. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that human rights are very hard to lose. (For a stronger view of inalienability, see Donnelly 2003, Meyers 1985).

Should human rights be defined as minimal rights? A number of philosophers have proposed the view that human rights are minimal in the sense of not being too numerous (a few dozen rights rather than hundreds or thousands), and not being too demanding (See Joshua Cohen 2004, Ignatieff 2005, and Rawls 1999). Their views suggest that human rights are—or should be—more concerned with avoiding the worst than with achieving the best. Henry Shue suggests that human rights concern the “lower limits on tolerable human conduct” rather than “great aspirations and exalted ideals” (Shue 1996). When human rights are modest standards they leave most legal and policy matters open to democratic decision-making at the national and local levels. This allows human rights to have high priority, to accommodate a great deal of cultural and institutional variation among countries, and to leave open a large space for democratic decision-making at the national level. Still, there is no contradiction in the idea of an extremely expansive list of human rights and hence minimalism is not a defining feature of human rights (for criticism of the view that human rights are minimal standards see Brems 2009 and Raz 2010). Minimalism is best seen as a normative prescription for what international human rights should be. Moderate forms of minimalism have considerable appeal, but not as part of the definition of human rights.

Should human rights be defined as always being or “mirroring” moral rights? Philosophers coming to human rights theory from moral philosophy sometimes assume that human rights must be, at bottom, moral rather than legal rights. There is no contradiction, however, in people saying that they believe in human rights, but only when they are legal rights at the national or international levels. As Louis Henkin observed, “Political forces have mooted the principal philosophical objections, bridging the chasm between natural and positive law by converting natural human rights into positive legal rights” (Henkin 1978). Theorists who insist that the only human rights are legal rights may find, however, that the interpretations they can give of universality, independent existence, and high priority are weak.

Should human rights be defined in terms of serving some sort of political function? Instead of seeing human rights as grounded in some sort of independently existing moral reality, a theorist might see them as the norms of a highly useful political practice that humans have constructed or evolved. Such a view would see the idea of human rights as playing various political roles at the national and international levels and as serving thereby to protect urgent human and national interests. These political roles might include providing standards for international evaluations of how governments treat their people and specifying when use of economic sanctions or military intervention is permissible (see Section 2.3 Political Conceptions of Human Rights below).

Political theorists would add to the four defining elements suggested above some set of political roles or functions. This kind of view may be plausible for the very salient international human rights that have emerged in international law and politics in the last fifty years. But human rights can exist and function in contexts not involving international scrutiny and intervention such as a world with only one state. Imagine, for example, that an asteroid strike had killed everyone in all countries except New Zealand, leaving it the only state in existence. Surely the idea of human rights as well as many dimensions of human rights practice could continue in New Zealand, even though there would be no international relations, law, or politics (for an argument of this sort see Tasioulas 2012). And if in the same scenario a few people were discovered to have survived in Iceland and were living without a government or state, New Zealanders would know that human rights governed how these people should be treated even though they were stateless. How deeply the idea of human rights must be rooted in international law and practice should not be settled by definitional fiat. We can allow, however, that the sorts of political functions that Rawls and Beitz describe are typically served by international human rights today.

2. The Existence and Grounds of Human Rights

A philosophical question about human rights that occurs to many people is how it is possible for such rights to exist. Several possible ways are explored in this section.

The most obvious way in which human rights come into existence is as norms of national and international law that are created by enactment, custom, and judicial decisions. At the international level, human rights norms exist because of treaties that have turned them into international law. For example, the human right not to be held in slavery or servitude in Article 4 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Council of Europe, 1950) and in Article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (UN 1966) exists because these treaties establish it. At the national level, human rights norms exist because they have through legislative enactment, judicial decision, or custom become part of a country’s law. For example, the right against slavery exists in the United States because the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits slavery and servitude. When rights are embedded in international law we speak of them as human rights; but when they are enacted in national law we more frequently describe them as civil or constitutional rights.

Enactment in national and international law is clearly one of the ways in which human rights exist. But many have suggested that this cannot be the only way. If human rights exist only because of enactment, their availability is contingent on domestic and international political developments. Many people have looked for a way to support the idea that human rights have roots that are deeper and less subject to human decisions than legal enactment. One version of this idea is that people are born with rights, that human rights are somehow innate or inherent in human beings (see Morsink 2009). One way that a normative status could be inherent in humans is by being God-given. The U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) claims that people are “endowed by their Creator” with natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. On this view, God, the supreme lawmaker, enacted some basic human rights.

Rights plausibly attributed to divine decree must be very general and abstract (life, liberty, etc.) so that they can apply to thousands of years of human history, not just to recent centuries. But contemporary human rights are specific and many of them presuppose contemporary institutions (e.g., the right to a fair trial and the right to education). Even if people are born with God-given natural rights, we need to explain how to get from those general and abstract rights to the specific rights found in contemporary declarations and treaties.

Attributing human rights to God’s commands may give them a secure status at the metaphysical level, but in a very diverse world it does not make them practically secure. Billions of people do not believe in the God of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. If people do not believe in God, or in the sort of god that prescribes rights, and if you want to base human rights on theological beliefs you must persuade these people of a rights-supporting theological view. This is likely to be even harder than persuading them of human rights. Legal enactment at the national and international levels provides a far more secure status for practical purposes.

Human rights could also exist independently of legal enactment by being part of actual human moralities. All human groups seem to have moralities in the sense of imperative norms of interpersonal behavior backed by reasons and values. These moralities contain specific norms (for example, a prohibition of the intentional murder of an innocent person) and specific values (for example, valuing human life.) If almost all human groups have moralities containing norms prohibiting murder, these norms could partially constitute the human right to life.

The view that human rights are norms found in all human moralities is attractive but has serious difficulties. Although worldwide acceptance of human rights has been increasing rapidly in recent decades (see 4. Universal Human Rights in a World of Diverse Beliefs and Practices ), worldwide moral unanimity about human rights does not exist. Human rights declarations and treaties are intended to change existing norms, not just describe the existing moral consensus.

Yet another way of explaining the existence of human rights is to say that they exist most basically in true or justified ethical outlooks. On this account, to say that there is a human right against torture is mainly to assert that there are strong reasons for believing that it is always morally wrong to engage in torture and that protections should be provided against it. This approach would view the Universal Declaration as attempting to formulate a justified political morality for the whole planet. It was not merely trying to identify a preexisting moral consensus; it was rather trying to create a consensus that could be supported by very plausible moral and practical reasons. This approach requires commitment to the objectivity of such reasons. It holds that just as there are reliable ways of finding out how the physical world works, or what makes buildings sturdy and durable, there are ways of finding out what individuals may justifiably demand of each other and of governments. Even if unanimity about human rights is currently lacking, rational agreement is available to humans if they will commit themselves to open-minded and serious moral and political inquiry. If moral reasons exist independently of human construction, they can—when combined with true premises about current institutions, problems, and resources—generate moral norms different from those currently accepted or enacted. The Universal Declaration seems to proceed on exactly this assumption (see Morsink 2009). One problem with this view is that existence as good reasons seems a rather thin form of existence for human rights. But perhaps we can view this thinness as a practical rather than a theoretical problem, as something to be remedied by the formulation and enactment of legal norms. The best form of existence for human rights would combine robust legal existence with the sort of moral existence that comes from widespread acceptance based on strong moral and practical reasons.

Justifications for human rights should defend their main features including their character as rights, their universality, and their high priority. Such justifications should also be capable of providing starting points for justifying a plausible list of specific rights (on starting points and making the transition to specific rights see Nickel 2007; see also Section 3 Which Rights are Human Rights? below). Further, justifying international human rights is likely to require additional steps (Buchanan 2012). These requirements make the construction of a good justification for human rights a daunting task.

Approaches to justification include grounding human rights in prudential reasons, practical reasons, moral rights (Thomson 1990), human well-being (Sumner 1987, Talbott 2010), fundamental interests (Beitz 2015), human needs (Miller 2012), agency and autonomy (Gewirth 1996, Griffin 2008) dignity (Gilabert 2018, Kateb 2011, Tasioulas 2015), fairness (Nickel 2007), equality, and positive freedom (Gould 2004, Nussbaum 2000, Sen 2004). Justifications can be based on just one of these types of reasons or they can be eclectic and appeal to several (Tasioulas. 2015).

Grounding human rights in human agency and autonomy has had strong advocates in recent decades. For example, in Human Rights: Essays on Justification and Application (1982) Alan Gewirth offered an agency-based justification for human rights. He argued that denying the value of successful agency and action is not an option for a human being; having a life requires regarding the indispensable conditions of agency and action as necessary goods. Abstractly described, these conditions of successful agency are freedom and well-being. A prudent rational agent who must have freedom and well-being will assert a “prudential right claim” to them. Having demanded that others respect her freedom and well-being, consistency requires her to recognize and respect the freedom and well-being of other persons. Since all other agents are in exactly the same position as she is of needing freedom and well-being, consistency requires her to recognize and respect their claims to freedom and well-being. She “logically must accept” that other people as agents have equal rights to freedom and well-being. These two abstract rights work alone and together to generate equal specific human rights of familiar sorts (Gewirth 1978, 1982, 1996). Gewirth’s aspiration was to provide an argument for human rights that applies to all human agents and that is inescapable. From a few hard-to-dispute facts and a principle of consistency he thinks we can derive two generic human rights—and from them, a list of more determinate rights. Gewirth’s views have generated a large critical literature (see Beyleveld 1991, Boylan 1999).

A more recent attempt to base human rights on agency and autonomy is found in James Griffin’s book, On Human Rights (2008). Griffin does not share Gewirth’s goal of providing a logically inescapable argument for human rights, but his overall view shares key structural features with Gewirth’s. These include starting the justification with the unique value of human agency and autonomy (which Griffin calls “normative agency”), postulating some abstract rights (autonomy, freedom, and well-being), and making a place for a right to well-being within an agency-based approach.

In the current dispute between “moral” (or “orthodox”) and “political” conceptions of human rights, Griffin strongly sides with those who see human rights as fundamentally moral rights. Their defining role, in Griffin’s view, is protecting people’s ability to form and pursue conceptions of a worthwhile life—a capacity that Griffin variously refers to as “autonomy,” “normative agency,” and “personhood.” This ability to form, revise, and pursue conceptions of a worthwhile life is taken to be of paramount value, the exclusive source of human dignity, and thereby the basis of human rights (Griffin 2008). Griffin holds that people value this capacity “especially highly, often more highly than even their happiness.”

“Practicalities” also shape human rights in Griffin’s view. He describes practicalities as “a second ground” of human rights. They prescribe making the boundaries of rights clear by avoiding “too many complicated bends,” enlarging rights a little to give them safety margins, and consulting facts about human nature and the nature of society. Accordingly, the justifying generic function that Griffin assigns to human rights is protecting normative agency while taking account of practicalities.

Griffin claims that human rights suffer even more than other normative concepts from an “indeterminacy of sense” that makes them vulnerable to proliferation (Griffin 2008). He thinks that tying all human rights to the single value of normative agency while taking account of practicalities is the best way to remedy this malady. He criticizes the frequent invention of new human rights and the “ballooning of the content” of established rights. Still, Griffin is friendly towards most of the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Beyond this, Griffin takes human rights to include many rights in interpersonal morality. For example, Griffin thinks that a child’s human right to education applies not just against governments but also against the child’s parents.

Griffin’s thesis that all human rights are grounded in normative agency is put forward not so much as a description but as a proposal, as the best way of giving human rights unity, coherence, and limits. Unfortunately, accepting and following this proposal is unlikely to yield effective barriers to proliferation or a sharp line between human rights and other moral norms. The main reason is one that Griffin himself recognizes: the “generative capacities” of normative agency are “quite great.” Providing adequate protections of the three components of normative agency (autonomy, freedom, and minimal well-being) will encounter a lot of threats to these values and hence will require lots of rights.

Views that explain human rights in terms of the practical political roles that they play have had prominent advocates in recent decades. These “political” conceptions of human rights explain what human rights are by describing the things that they do . Two philosophers who have developed political conceptions are discussed in this section, namely, John Rawls and Charles Beitz (for helpful discussions of political conceptions and their alternatives see the collections of essays in Etinson 2018 and Maliks and Schaffer 2017).

Advocates of political conceptions of human rights are often agnostic or skeptical about universal moral rights while rejecting wholesale moral skepticism and thinking possible the provision of sound normative justifications for the content, normativity, and roles of human rights (for challenges to purely political views see Gilabert 2011, Liao and Etinson 2012, Sangiovanni 2017, and Waldron 2018).

John Rawls introduced the idea of a political conception of human rights in his book, The Law of Peoples (Rawls 1999). The basic idea is that we can understand what human rights are and what their justification requires by identifying the main roles they play in some political sphere. In The Law of Peoples this sphere is international relations (and, secondarily, national politics). Rawls was attempting a normative reconstruction of international law and politics within today’s international system, and this helps explain Rawls’s focus on how human rights function within this system.

Rawls says that human rights are a special class of urgent rights . He seems to accept the definition of human rights given in Section 1 above. Besides saying that human rights are rights that are high priority or “urgent,” Rawls also accepts that they are plural and universal. But Rawls was working on a narrower project than Gewirth and Griffin. The international human rights he was concerned with are also defined by their roles in helping define in various ways the normative structure of the global system. They provide content to other normative concepts such as legitimacy, sovereignty, permissible intervention, and membership in good standing in the international community.

According to Rawls the justificatory process for human rights is analogous to the one for principles of justice at the national level that he described in A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971). Instead of asking about the terms of cooperation that free and equal citizens would agree to under fair conditions, we ask about the terms of cooperation that free and equal peoples or countries would agree to under fair conditions. We imagine representatives of the world’s countries meeting to choose the normative principles that constitute the basic international structure. These representatives are imagined to see the countries they represent as free (rightfully independent) and equal (equally worthy of respect and fair treatment). These representatives are also imagined to be choosing rationally in light of the fundamental interests of their country, to be reasonable in seeking to find and respect fair terms of cooperation, and impartial because they are behind a “veil of ignorance”—they lack information about the country they represent such as its size, wealth, and power. Rawls holds that under these conditions these representatives will unanimously choose principles for the global order that include some basic human rights (for further explanation of the global original position see the entries on John Rawls and original position ).

Rawls advocated a limited list of human rights, one that leaves out many fundamental freedoms, rights of political participation, and equality rights. He did this for two reasons. One is that he wanted a list that is plausible for all reasonable countries, not just liberal democracies. The second reason is that he viewed serious violations of human rights as triggering permissible intervention by other countries, and only the most important rights can play this role.

Leaving out protections for equality and democracy is a high price to pay for assigning human rights the role of making international intervention permissible when they are seriously violated. We can accommodate Rawls’underlying idea without paying that price. To accept the idea that countries engaging in massive violations of the most important human rights are not to be tolerated we do not need to follow Rawls in equating international human rights with a heavily-pruned list. Instead we can work up a view—which is needed for other purposes anyway—of which human rights are the weightiest and then assign the intervention-permitting role to this subset.

Charles Beitz’s account of human rights in The Idea of Human Rights (Beitz 2009) shares many similarities with Rawls’s but is much more fully developed. Like Rawls, Beitz deals with human rights only as they have developed in contemporary international human rights practice. Beitz suggests that we can develop an understanding of human rights by attending to “the practical inferences that would be drawn by competent participants in the practice from what they regard as valid claims of human rights.” Observations of what competent participants say and do inform the account of what human rights are. The focus is not on what human rights are at some deep philosophical level; it is rather on how they work by guiding actions within a recently emerged and still evolving discursive practice. The norms of the practice guide the interpretation and application of human rights, the appropriateness of criticism in terms of human rights, adjudication in human rights courts, and—perhaps most importantly—responding to serious violations of human rights. Beitz says that human rights are “matters of international concern” and that they are “potential triggers of transnational protective and remedial action.”

Beitz does not agree with Rawls’s view that these roles require an abbreviated list of human rights. He accepts that the requirements of human rights are weaker than the requirements of social justice at the national level, but denies that human rights are minimal or highly modest in other respects.

Beitz rightly suggests that a reasonable person can accept and use the idea of human rights without accepting any particular view about their foundations. It is less clear that he is right in suggesting that good justifications of human rights should avoid as far as possible controversial assumptions about religion, metaphysics, ideology, and intrinsic value (see the entry public reason ). Beitz emphasizes the practical good that human rights do, not their grounds in some underlying moral reality. This helps make human rights attractive to people from around the world with their diverse religious and philosophical traditions. The broad justification for human rights and their normativity that Beitz offers is that they protect “urgent individual interests against predictable dangers (”standard threats“) to which they are vulnerable under typical circumstances of life in a modern world order composed of independent states.”

3. Which Rights are Human Rights?

This section discusses the question of which rights belong on lists of human rights. The Universal Declaration’s list, which has had great influence, consists of six families: (1) Security rights that protect people against murder, torture, and genocide; (2) Due process rights that protect people against arbitrary and excessively harsh punishments and require fair and public trials for those accused of crimes; (3) Liberty rights that protect people’s fundamental freedoms in areas such as belief, expression, association, and movement; (4) Political rights that protect people’s liberty to participate in politics by assembling, protesting, voting, and serving in public office; (5) Equality rights that guarantee equal citizenship, equality before the law, and freedom from discrimination; and (6) Social rights that require that governments ensure to all the availability of work, education, health services, and an adequate standard of living. A seventh category, minority and group rights, has been created by subsequent treaties. These rights protect women, racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, children, migrant workers, and the disabled.

Not every question of social justice or wise governance is a human rights issue. For example, a country could have too many lawyers or inadequate provision for graduate-level education without violating any human rights. Deciding which norms should be counted as human rights is a matter of considerable difficulty. And there is continuing pressure to expand lists of human rights to include new areas. Many political movements would like to see their main concerns categorized as matters of human rights, since this would publicize, promote, and legitimize their concerns at the international level. A possible result of this is “human rights inflation,” the devaluation of human rights caused by producing too much bad human rights currency (See Cranston 1973, Orend 2002, Wellman 1999, Griffin 2008).

One way to avoid rights inflation is to follow Cranston in insisting that human rights only deal with extremely important goods, protections, and freedoms. A supplementary approach is to impose several justificatory tests for specific human rights. For example, it could be required that a proposed human right not only protect some very important good but also respond to one or more common and serious threats to that good (Dershowitz 2004, Donnelly 2003, Shue 1996, Talbott 2005), impose burdens on the addressees that are justifiable and no larger than necessary, and be feasible in most of the world’s countries (on feasibility see Gilabert 2009 and Nickel 2007). This approach restrains rights inflation with several tests, not just one master test.

In deciding which specific rights are human rights it is possible to make either too little or too much of international documents such as the Universal Declaration and the European Convention. One makes too little of them by proceeding as if drawing up a list of important rights were a new question, never before addressed, and as if there were no practical wisdom to be found in the choices of rights that went into the historic documents. And one makes too much of them by presuming that those documents tell us everything we need to know about human rights. This approach involves a kind of fundamentalism: it holds that when a right is on the official lists of human rights that settles its status as a human right (“If it’s in the book that’s all I need to know.”) But the process of identifying human rights in the United Nations and elsewhere was a political process with plenty of imperfections. There is little reason to take international diplomats as the most authoritative guides to which human rights there are. Further, even if a treaty’s ratification by most countries can settle the question of whether a certain right is a human right within international law, such a treaty cannot settle its weight. The treaty may suggest that the right is supported by weighty considerations, but it cannot make this so. If an international treaty enacted a right to visit national parks without charge as a human right, the ratification of that treaty would make free access to national parks a human right within international law. But it would not be able to make us believe that the right to visit national parks without charge was sufficiently important to be a real human right (see Luban 2015).

The least controversial family of human rights is civil and political rights. These rights are familiar from historic bills of rights such as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791, with subsequent amendments). Contemporary sources include the first 21 Articles of the Universal Declaration , and treaties such as the European Convention , the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights , the American Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights . Some representative formulations follow:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other medium of one’s choice. (American Convention on Human Rights, Article 13.1)
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests (European Convention, Article 11).
Every citizen shall have the right to participate freely in the government of his country, either directly or through freely chosen representatives in accordance with the provisions of the law. 2. Every citizen shall have the right of equal access to the public service of his country. 3. Every individual shall have the right of access to public property and services in strict equality of all persons before the law (African Charter, Article 13).

Most civil and political rights are not absolute—they can in some cases be overridden by other considerations. For example, the right to freedom of movement can be restricted by public and private property rights, by restraining orders related to domestic violence, and by legal punishments. Further, after a disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake free movement is often appropriately suspended to keep out the curious, permit access of emergency vehicles and equipment, and prevent looting. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permits rights to be suspended during times “of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation” (Article 4). But it excludes some rights from suspension including the right to life, the prohibition of torture, the prohibition of slavery, the prohibition of ex post facto criminal laws, and freedom of thought and religion.

The Universal Declaration included social (or “welfare”) rights that address matters such as education, food, health services, and employment. Their inclusion has been the source of much controversy (see Beetham 1995). The European Convention did not include them (although it was later amended to include the right to education). Instead they were put into a separate treaty, the European Social Charter . When the United Nations began the process of putting the rights of the Universal Declaration into international law, it followed the same pattern by treating economic and social standards in a treaty separate from the one dealing with civil and political rights. This treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (the “Social Covenant,” 1966), treated these standards as rights—albeit rights to be progressively realized.

The Social Covenant’s list of rights includes nondiscrimination and equality for women in economic and social life (Articles 2 and 3), freedom to work and opportunities to work (Article 4), fair pay and decent conditions of work (Article 7), the right to form trade unions and to strike (Article 8), social security (Article 9), special protections for mothers and children (Article 10), the right to adequate food, clothing, and housing (Article 11), the right to basic health services (Article 12), the right to education (Article 13), and the right to participate in cultural life and scientific progress (Article 15).

Article 2.1 of the Social Covenant sets out what each of the parties commits itself to do about this list, namely to “take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation…to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant.” In contrast, the Civil and Political Covenant commits its signatories to immediate compliance, to “respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory the rights recognized in the present Covenant” (Article 2.1). The contrast between these two levels of commitment has led some people to suspect that economic and social rights are really just valuable goals. Why did the Social Covenant opt for progressive implementation and thereby treat its rights as being somewhat like goals? The main reason is that many of the world’s countries lacked the economic, institutional, and human resources to realize these standards fully or even largely. For many countries, noncompliance due to inability would have been certain if these standards had been treated as immediately binding.

Social rights have often been defended with linkage arguments that show the support they provide to adequate realization of civil and political rights. This approach was first developed philosophically by Henry Shue (Shue 1996; see also Nickel 2007 and 2016). Linkage arguments defend controversial rights by showing the indispensable or highly useful support they provide to uncontroversial rights. For example, if a government succeeds in eliminating hunger and providing education to everyone this promotes people’s abilities to know, use, and enjoy their liberties, due process rights, and rights of political participation. Lack of education is frequently a barrier to the realization of civil and political rights because uneducated people often do not know what rights they have and what they can do to use and defend them. Lack of education is also a common barrier to democratic participation. Education and a minimum income make it easier for people near the bottom economically to follow politics, participate in political campaigns, and to spend the time and money needed to go to the polls and vote.

Do social rights yield a sufficient commitment to equality? Objections to social rights as human rights have come from both the political right and the political left. A common objection from the left, including liberal egalitarians and socialists, is that social rights as enumerated in human rights documents and treaties provide too weak of a commitment to material equality (Moyn 2018; Gilabert 2015). Realizing social rights requires a state that ensures to everyone an adequate minimum of resources in some key areas but that does not necessarily have strong commitments to equality of opportunity, to strong redistributive taxation, and to ceilings on wealth (see the entries equality , equality of opportunity , distributive justice , and liberal feminism ).

The egalitarian objection cannot be that human rights documents and treaties showed no concern for people living in poverty and misery. That would be wildly false. One of the main purposes of including social rights in human rights documents and treaties was to promote serious efforts to combat poverty, lack of education, and unhealthy living conditions in countries all around the world (see also Langford 2013 on the UN Millennium Development Goals). The objection also cannot be that human rights facilitated the hollowing out of systems of welfare rights in many developed countries that occurred after 1980. Those cuts in welfare programs were often in violation of the requirements of adequately realizing social rights.

Perhaps it should be conceded that human rights documents and treaties have not said enough about positive measures to promote equal opportunity in education and work. A positive right to equal opportunity, like the one Rawls proposed, would require countries to take serious measures to reduce disparities between the opportunities effectively available to children of high-income and low-income parents (Rawls 1971).

A strongly egalitarian political program is best pursued partially within but mostly beyond the human rights framework. One reason for this is that the human rights movement will have better future prospects for acceptance and realization if it has widespread political support. That requires that the rights it endorses appeal to people with a variety of political views ranging from center-left to center-right. Support from the broad political center will not emerge and survive if the human rights platform is perceived as mostly a leftist program.

Do social rights protect sufficiently important human interests? Maurice Cranston opposed social rights by suggesting that social rights are mainly concerned with matters such as holidays with pay that are not matters of deep and universal human interests (Cranston 1967, 1973. Treatments of objections to social rights include Beetham 1995; Howard 1987; and Nickel 2007). It is far from the case, however, that most social rights pertain only to superficial interests. Consider two examples: the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to free public education. These rights require governments to try to remedy widespread and serious evils such as severe poverty, starvation and malnutrition, and ignorance. The importance of food and other basic material conditions of life is easy to show. These goods are essential to people’s ability to live, function, and flourish. Without adequate access to these goods, interests in life, health, and liberty are endangered and serious illness and death are probable. Lack of access to educational opportunities typically limits (both absolutely and comparatively) people’s abilities to participate fully and effectively in the political and economic life of their country.

Are social rights too burdensome? Another objection to social rights is that they are too burdensome on their dutybearers. It is very expensive to guarantee to everyone basic education and minimal material conditions of life. Frequently the claim that social rights are too burdensome uses other, less controversial human rights as a standard of comparison, and suggests that social rights are substantially more burdensome or expensive than liberty rights. Suppose that we use as a basis of comparison liberty rights such as freedom of communication, association, and movement. These rights require both respect and protection from governments. And people cannot be adequately protected in their enjoyment of liberties such as these unless they also have security and due process rights. The costs of liberty, as it were, include the costs of law and criminal justice. Once we see this, liberty rights start to look a lot more costly.

Further, we should not generally think of social rights as simply giving everyone a free supply of the goods they protect. Guarantees of things like food and housing will be intolerably expensive and will undermine productivity if everyone simply receives a free supply. A viable system of social rights will require most people to provide these goods for themselves and their families through work as long as they are given the necessary opportunities, education, and infrastructure. Government-implemented social rights provide guarantees of availability (or “secure access”), but governments should have to supply the requisite goods in only a small fraction of cases. Note that education is often an exception to this since many countries provide free public education irrespective of ability to pay.

Countries that do not accept and implement social rights still have to bear somehow the costs of providing for the needy since these countries—particularly if they recognize democratic rights of political participation—are unlikely to find it tolerable to allow sizeable parts of the population to starve and be homeless. If government does not supply food, clothing, and shelter to those unable to provide for themselves, then families, friends, and communities will have to shoulder this burden. It is only in the last hundred or so years that government-sponsored social rights have taken over a substantial part of the burden of providing for the needy. The taxes associated with social rights are partial replacements for other burdensome duties, namely the duties of families and communities to provide adequate care for the unemployed, sick, disabled, and aged. Deciding whether to implement social rights is not a matter of deciding whether to bear such burdens, but rather of deciding whether to continue with total reliance on a system of informal provision that distributes assistance in a very spotty way and whose costs fall very unevenly on families, friends, and communities.

Are social rights feasible worldwide? Another objection to social rights alleges that they are not feasible in many countries (on how to understand feasibility see Gilabert 2009). It is very expensive to provide guarantees of subsistence, measures to protect and restore people’s health, and education. Many governments will be unable to provide these guarantees while meeting other important responsibilities. Rights are not magical sources of supply (Holmes and Sunstein 1999).

As we saw earlier, the Social Covenant dealt with the issue of feasibility by calling for progressive implementation, that is, implementation as financial and other resources permit. Does this view of implementation turn social rights into high-priority goals? And if so, is that a bad thing?

Standards that outrun the abilities of many of their addressees are good candidates for treatment as goals. Viewing them as largely aspirational rather than as imposing immediate duties avoids problems of inability-based noncompliance. One may worry, however, that this is too much of a demotion for social rights because goals seem much weaker than rights. But goals can be formulated in ways that make them more like rights. They can be assigned addressees (the parties who are to pursue the goal), beneficiaries, scopes that define the objective to be pursued, and a high level of priority (see Langford 2013 and Nickel 2013; see also UN Human Rights and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals ). Strong reasons for the importance of these goals can be provided. And supervisory bodies can monitor levels of progress and pressure low-performing addressees to attend to and work on their goals.

Treating very demanding rights as goals has several advantages. One is that proposed goals that greatly exceed our abilities are not so farcical as proposed duties that do so. Creating grand lists of social rights that many countries cannot presently realize seems farcical to many people. Perhaps this perceived lack of realism is reduced if we understand that these “rights” are really goals that countries should seriously promote. Goals coexist easily with low levels of ability to achieve them. Another advantage is that goals are flexible: addressees with different levels of ability can choose ways of pursuing the goals that suit their circumstances and means. Because of these attractions it may be worth exploring sophisticated ways to transform very demanding human rights into goals. The transformation may be full or partial. It is possible to create right-goal mixtures that contain some mandatory elements and that therefore seem more like real rights (see Brems 2009). A right-goal mixture might include some rights-like goals, some mandatory steps to be taken immediately, and duties to realize the rights-like goals as quickly as possible.

Equality of rights for historically disadvantaged or subordinated groups is a longstanding concern of the human rights movement. Human rights documents repeatedly emphasize that all people, including women and members of minority ethnic and religious groups, have equal human rights and should be able to enjoy them without discrimination. The right to freedom from discrimination figures prominently in the Universal Declaration and subsequent treaties. The Civil and Political Covenant, for example, commits participating states to respect and protect their people’s rights “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or social status” (on minority and group rights see Kymlicka 1995, Nickel 2007).

A number of standard individual rights are especially important to ethnic and religious minorities, including rights to freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom from discrimination. Human rights documents also include rights that refer to minorities explicitly and give them special protections. For example, the Civil and Political Covenant in Article 27 says that persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities “shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”

Feminists have often protested that standard lists of human rights do not sufficiently take into account the different risks faced by women and men. For example, issues like domestic violence, reproductive choice, and trafficking of women and girls for sex work did not have a prominent place in early human rights documents and treaties. Lists of human rights have had to be expanded “to include the degradation and violation of women” (Bunch 2006, 58; see also Lockwood 2006 and Okin 1998). Violations of women’s human rights often occur in the home at the hands of other family members, not in the street at the hands of the police. Most violence against women occurs in the “private” sphere. This has meant that governments cannot be seen as the only addressees of human rights and that the right to privacy of home and family needs qualifications to allow police to protect women within the home.

The issue of how formulations of human rights should respond to variations in the sorts of risks and dangers that different people face is difficult and arises not just in relation to gender but also in relation to age, profession, political affiliation, religion, and personal interests. Due process rights, for example, are much more useful to young people (and particularly young men) than they are to older people since the latter are far less likely to run afoul of the criminal law.

Since 1964 the United Nations has mainly dealt with the rights of women and minorities through specialized treaties such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2007). See also the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). Specialized treaties allow international norms to address unique problems of particular groups such as assistance and care during pregnancy and childbearing in the case of women, custody issues in the case of children, and the loss of historic territories by indigenous peoples.

Minority groups are often targets of violence. Human rights norms call upon governments to refrain from such violence and to provide protections against it. This work is partly done by the right to life, which is a standard individual right. It is also done by the right against genocide which protects some groups from attempts to destroy or decimate them. The Genocide Convention was one of the first human rights treaties after World War II. The right against genocide is clearly a group right. It is held by both individuals and groups and provides protection to groups as groups. It is largely negative in the sense that it requires governments and other agencies to refrain from destroying groups; but it also requires that legal and other protections against genocide be created at the national level.

Can the right against genocide be a human right? More generally, can a group right fit the general idea of human rights proposed earlier? On that conception, human rights are rights of all persons . Perhaps it can, however, if we broaden our conception of who can hold human rights to include important groups that people form and cherish (see the entry on group rights ). This can be made more palatable, perhaps, by recognizing that the beneficiaries of the right against genocide are individual humans who enjoy greater security against attempts to destroy the group to which they belong (Kymlicka 1989).

In spite of the danger of rights inflation, there are doubtless norms that should be counted as human rights but are not generally recognized as such. After all, there are lots of areas in which people’s dignity and fundamental interests are threatened by the actions and omissions of individuals and governments. Consider environmental rights, which are often defined to include rights of animals or even of nature itself (see the entry on environmental ethics ). Conceived in this broad way environmental rights don’t have a good fit with the general idea of human rights because the rightholders are not humans or human groups.

Alternative formulations are possible, however. A basic environmental human right can be understood as requiring maintenance and restoration of an environment that is safe for human life and health. Many countries have environmental rights of this sort in their constitutional bills of rights (Hayward 2005). And the European Union’s Bill of Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union , includes in Article 37 an environmental protection norm: “A high level of environmental protection and the improvement of the quality of the environment must be integrated into the policies of the Union and ensured in accordance with the principle of sustainable development.”

A human right to a safe environment or to environmental protection does not directly address issues such as the claims of animals or biodiversity, although it might do so indirectly using the idea of ecosystem services to humans (see Biodiversity and Human Rights . A justification for a human right to a safe environment should show that environmental problems pose serious threats to fundamental human interests, values, or norms; that governments may appropriately be burdened with the responsibility of protecting people against these threats; and that most governments actually have the ability to do this.

Climate change is currently a major environmental threat to many people’s lives and health, and hence it is unsurprising that human rights approaches to climate change have been developed and advocated in recent decades (see Bodansky 2011, Gardiner 2013, and UN Human Rights and Climate Change ). One approach, advocated by Steve Vanderheiden accepts the idea of a human right to an environment that is adequate for human life and health and derives from this broad right a more specific right to a stable climate (Vanderheiden 2008). Another approach, advocated by Simon Caney, does not require introducing a new environmental right. It suggests instead that serious action to reduce and mitigate climate change is required by already well-established human rights because severe climate change will violate many people’s rights to life, food, and health (Caney 2010). One could expand this approach by arguing that severe climate change should be reduced and mitigated because it will cause massive human migrations and other crises that will undermine the abilities of many governments to uphold human rights (for evaluation of these arguments see Bell 2013).

Two familiar philosophical worries about human rights are that they are based on moral beliefs that are culturally relative and that their creation and advocacy involves ethnocentrism. Human rights prescribe universal standards in areas such as security, law enforcement, equality, political participation, and education. The peoples and countries of planet Earth are, however, enormously varied in their practices, traditions, religions, and levels of economic and political development. Putting these two propositions together may be enough to justify the worry that universal human rights do not sufficiently accommodate the diversity of Earth’s peoples. A theoretical expression of this worry is “relativism,” the idea that ethical, political, and legal standards for a particular country or region are mostly shaped by the traditions, beliefs, and conditions of that country or region (see the entry on moral relativism ). The anthropologist William G. Sumner, writing in 1906, asserted that “the mores can make anything right and prevent condemnation of anything” (Sumner 1906).

Relativists sometimes accuse human rights advocates of ethnocentrism, arrogance, and cultural imperialism (Talbott 2005). Ethnocentrism is the assumption, usually unconscious, that “one’s own group is the center of everything” and that its beliefs, practices, and norms provide the standards by which other groups are “scaled and rated” (Sumner 1906; see also Etinson 2018 who argues that ethnocentrism is best understood as a kind of cultural bias rather than as a belief in cultural superiority). Ethnocentrism can lead to arrogance and intolerance in dealings with other countries, ethical systems, and religions. Finally, cultural imperialism occurs when the economically, technologically, and militarily strongest countries impose their beliefs, values, and institutions on the rest of the world. Relativists often combine these charges with a prescription, namely that tolerance of varied practices and traditions ought to be instilled and practiced through measures that include extended learning about other cultures.

The conflict between relativists and human rights advocates may be partially based on differences in their underlying philosophical beliefs, particularly in metaethics. Relativists are often subjectivists or noncognitivists and think of morality as entirely socially constructed and transmitted. In contrast, philosophically-inclined human rights advocates are more likely to adhere to or presuppose cognitivism, moral realism , and intuitionism .

During the drafting in 1947 of the Universal Declaration, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association warned of the danger that the Declaration would be “a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in Western Europe and America.” Perhaps the main concern of the AAA Board in the period right after World War II was to condemn the intolerant colonialist attitudes of the day and to advocate cultural and political self-determination. But the Board also made the stronger assertion that “standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive” and thus “what is held to be a human right in one society may be regarded as anti-social by another people” ( American Anthropological Association Statement on Human Rights 1947 ).

This is not, of course, the stance of most anthropologists today. Currently the American Anthropological Association has a Committee on Human Rights whose objectives include promoting and protecting human rights and developing an anthropological perspective on human rights. While still emphasizing the importance of cultural differences, anthropologists now often support cultural survival and the protection of vulnerable cultures, non-discrimination, and the rights and land claims of indigenous peoples.

The idea that relativism and exposure to other cultures promote tolerance may be correct from a psychological perspective. People who are sensitive to differences in beliefs, practices, and traditions, and who are suspicious of the grounds for extending norms across borders, may be more inclined to be tolerant of other countries and peoples than those who believe in an objective universal morality. Still, philosophers have been generally critical of attempts to argue from relativism to a prescription of tolerance (Talbott 2005). If the culture and religion of one country has long fostered intolerant attitudes and practices, and if its citizens and officials act intolerantly towards people from other countries, they are simply following their own traditions and cultural norms. They are just doing what relativists think people mostly do. Accordingly, a relativist from a tolerant country will be hard-pressed to find a basis for criticizing the citizens and officials of the intolerant country. To do so the relativist will have to endorse a transcultural principle of tolerance and to advocate as an outsider cultural change in the direction of greater tolerance. Because of this, relativists who are deeply committed to tolerance may find themselves attracted to a qualified commitment to human rights.

East Asia is the region of the world that participates least in the international human rights system—even though some important East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea do participate. In the 1990s Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and others argued that international human rights as found in United Nations declarations and treaties were insensitive to distinctive “Asian values” such as prizing families and community (in contrast to strong individualism); putting social harmony over personal freedom; respect for political leaders and institutions; and emphasizing responsibility, hard work, and thriftiness as means of social progress (on the Asian Values debate see Bauer and Bell 1999; Bell 2000; Sen 1997; and Twining 2009). Proponents of the Asian values idea did not wish to abolish all human rights; they rather wanted to deemphasize some families of human rights, particularly the fundamental freedoms and rights of democratic participation (and in some cases the rights of women). They also wanted Western governments and NGOs to stop criticizing them for human rights violations in these areas.

At the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, countries including Singapore, Malaysia, China, and Iran advocated accommodations within human rights practice for cultural and economic differences. Western representatives tended to view the position of these countries as excuses for repression and authoritarianism. The Conference responded by approving the Vienna Declaration . It included in Article 5 the assertion that countries should not pick and choose among human rights: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Perhaps the debate about relativism and human rights has become obsolete. In recent decades widespread acceptance of human rights has occurred in most parts of the world. Three quarters of the world’s countries have ratified the major human rights treaties, and many countries in Africa, the Americas, and Europe participate in regional human rights regimes that have international courts (see Georgetown University Human Rights Law Research Guide in the Other Internet Resources below). Further, all of the world’s countries now use similar political institutions (law, courts, legislatures, executives, militaries, bureaucracies, police, prisons, taxation, and public schools) and these institutions carry with them characteristic problems and abuses (Donnelly 2003). Finally, globalization has diminished the differences among peoples. Today’s world is not the one that early anthropologists and missionaries found. National and cultural boundaries are breached not just by international trade but also by millions of travelers and migrants, electronic communications, international law covering many areas, and the efforts of international governmental and non-governmental organizations. International influences and organizations are everywhere and countries borrow freely and regularly from each other’s inventions and practices.

Worldwide polls on attitudes towards human rights are now available and they show broad support for human rights and international efforts to promote them. Empirical research can now replace or supplement theoretical speculations about how much disagreement on human rights exists worldwide. A December 2011 report by the Council on Foreign Relations surveyed recent international opinion polls on human rights that probe agreement and disagreement with propositions such as “People have the right to express any opinion,” “People of all faiths can practice their religion freely,” “Women should have the same rights as men,” “People of different races [should be] treated equally,” and governments “should be responsible for ensuring that [their] citizens can meet their basic need for food.” Big majorities of those polled in countries such as Argentina, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, Kenya, Nigeria, China, India, and Indonesia gave affirmative answers. Further, large majorities (on average 70%) in all the countries polled supported UN efforts to promote the human rights set out in the Universal Declaration. Unfortunately, popular acceptance of human rights ideas has not, however, prevented a recent slide in many of these same countries towards authoritarianism.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.

Other Internet Resources

  • Georgetown Law Library Human Rights Law Research Guide
  • United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • University of Minnesota Human Rights Library .
  • Francisco Suarez (1548–1617), entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  • Human Rights entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy .

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Human Rights and History

Responding to Philip Alston, Does the Past Matter? On the Origins of Human Rights , 126 Harv. L. Rev. 2043 (2013)

  • Jenny S. Martinez

Response To:

  • Does the Past Matter? On the Origins of Human Rights  by  Philip Alston
  • See full issue

What is “international human rights,” does it have a history, and does that history matter? As Professor Philip Alston notes in his book review, Does the Past Matter?: On the Origins of Human Rights , these issues are the subject of considerable academic debate. 1

In my recent book, The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law , I examine the role of international law in the end-ing of the transatlantic slave trade, and I suggest that this episode forms an important part of the history of international human rights law. 2 Alston’s thoughtful book review first examines the specific claims in my book, and then situates my argument in the larger con-text of the current historiography of international human rights. In Part I of this short response essay, I will first address the points of agreement and disagreement between myself and Alston about the specifics of the slave-trade history. In Part II, I will address the historiography more generally, and in particular claims made by those whom Alston calls the “revisionists” (most notably, Professor Samuel Moyn), who contend that the history of contemporary international human rights, properly defined, only began in the 1970s. I will conclude by offering my views on why this debate matters.

There are two aspects of the historical events I examine in The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law that I think significantly align this period with institutional characteristics of contemporary international human rights law: (1) the turn to international law; and (2) the involvement of a civil-society movement (employing many of the same tactics as modern human rights nongovernmental organizations) in pushing for that turn.

In my book, I argue that it was in connection with the slave trade that “[t]he idea that nations should use international lawmaking to protect the rights of individuals” who are not their own nationals “outside their own territory was first put into practice” through international legal structures. 3 The widespread adoption of treaties against the slave trade:

introduced into modern international legal discourse the idea that violations of human rights were offenses of concern to humankind generally, and not just matters between a people and their sovereign. This is the key conceptual step that separates the contemporary world of international human rights law from the ideas of natural and universal rights that arose during the Enlightenment and took national legal form in documents like the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (which focus on the relationship between individuals and the sovereign states where they reside). 4

My argument is specifically a claim about the legal recognition of human rights as legitimate matters of international concern and the institutional mechanisms chosen to instantiate that concern; in that regard, as Alston notes, my definition of “international human rights” tracks the institutional details of contemporary practice. 5 Indeed, as the title of my book suggests, it is an argument about international human rights law.

Social movements are a part of the story, too, but importantly, they are tied to law. Abolitionism was a social movement that had as its goal a change in society. But the change abolitionists sought was also fundamentally a change in law: slavery and slave-trading were legal, and the abolitionists wanted them to be illegal. Were slaves chattel that could be legally bought and sold (and in whom other people had property rights), or were they people with civil rights like the rights to contract and sue for wages? It took quite a lot to change those laws — in the case of the United States, a civil war. A formal change in law would not have been enough if slavery persisted de facto (and indeed, it did and does in many parts of the world, and in the United States it took the civil rights movement to actually begin to eradicate the vestiges of slavery). But it is important not to forget that the goal of abolitionism in the nineteenth century was a redefinition of legal rights. Moreover, as my book recounts, abolitionists also sought changes in international law. A change in international law was as necessary to the global eradication of the slave trade as changes in laws were to slavery’s abolition domestically. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, slave trading was lawful — even encouraged — by international law; by the end, it was prohibited.

The first point of disagreement highlighted in Alston’s review is a definitional one: did the abolition of slavery have anything to do with “human rights” as we understand it today? As Alston notes, I contend that this was “the most successful episode ever in the history of international human rights law.” 6 I am hardly the first to have claimed the abolition movement as an early victory for human rights. Professor David Brion Davis, the pioneering historian of slavery and the slave trade, calls abolition the world’s “first successful if costly movement for human rights.” 7 Professor Seymour Drescher, another leading historian of the slave trade, describes abolitionism as “the first and, in a narrow sense, the most successful human rights movement.” 8 He has further written:

The real economic paradox of abolition is that in one major region after another — the British colonies, the American South, Cuba and Brazil — political power had to intervene to constrict or to abolish major slave systems whose economic advantages remained intact until well after the transformation of British abolitionism into a world human rights movement. 9 Many abolitionists relied upon, and contributed to the development of, ideas of rights. 10

Alston begins by questioning “whether there was in fact significant reliance upon concepts of rights” in abolitionism, and suggests that my arguments in support of this proposition are “almost anecdotal,” noting that a keyword search of a four hundred—page collection of pamphlets in the 1780s and 1790s reveals no references to the phrase “human rights” and just twenty-eight references to “rights.” 11 He then discounts the usefulness of this kind of “‘search engine’ mentality,” which he believes has led me unduly to discover and celebrate the fact that President Thomas Jefferson used the phrase “human rights” in introducing the measure banning the slave trade to the U.S. Congress in 1806. 12 As an initial matter, President Jefferson’s characterization of this landmark legislation, as he sent it to Congress, as involving “rights” is hardly an obscure or irrelevant citation that only a search engine could reveal. More generally, if I do not give a comprehensive review of every abolitionist source that frames antislavery in terms of “rights,” it is because there are so many — not so few — and because it has so long been established among historians in the field that Enlightenment ideas of rights played an important role in abolitionist thought. To be sure, ideas of “rights” were not the only thing motivating abolitionism. Alston chides me for too briefly asserting that “historians now . . . concur that British abolitionism arose out of a confluence of factors, including economic changes, Enlightenment philosophy, and religious revival movements.” 13 But while historians have disagreed about the relative weight to be given to these various factors for several decades now, and seem likely to continue to do so, it is fairly well established that arguments based on rights played some significant part in abolitionist discourse. 14

Alston suggests that there are distinctions among natural rights, the rights of man, and “human rights” as used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and today. 15 That is undoubtedly true. But just as true is the fact that there is not one universally accepted definition of “human rights” even today, and as Alston rightly concludes (in congruence with the claims of Professor Robin Blackburn, among many others), “there is a powerful argument to be made that there was a strong element of continuity in the evolution of rights discourse.” 16

Alston is also skeptical of my claim in the book that the description of the slave trade as a “crime against humanity” by nineteenth-century international lawyers, and the attempts to gain universal jurisdiction over the slave trade by redefining the slave trade as a form of piracy (because pirates were considered hostis humani generis , or enemies of all mankind) were at all significant. Alston suggests that “claims of continuity between today’s understanding of crimes against humanity and the historic practice of slavery have been consistently rejected in international law,” though he acknowledges in the next sentence that African governments have argued that slavery was, in fact, a crime against humanity that warrants reparations. 17 The fact that, given the passage of time, African governments may have phrased requests for reparations in terms of moral obligation hardly negates the possibility that they also view it as a legal wrong. Moreover, the fact that Western governments (for obvious economic and political reasons) have denied that any reparations are due does not negate the conceptual point. The significance of “crimes against humanity” in contemporary international law turns on two interrelated ideas: first, that these are crimes that in some way disregard and undermine the very humanity of the victims, and second, that they are offenses not just against the particular victim but that rightly arouse the concern of humanity generally, of the international community. These points are, as I explain in the book, precisely the arguments that were made for bringing slave trading under the jurisdiction of international law rather than leaving it solely up to individual nations to do as they saw fit.

Alston also critiques certain aspects of the causal argument I make in the book about the role of international law in the ending of the slave trade. He seems to think that I am arguing that international law was the primary causal factor in the ending of the slave trade, which would indeed fly in the face of most of the historical scholarship. I do not so much as disagree with Alston as think he has misread aspects of the causal argument I do make in the book. Far from arguing that international law — let alone international courts — independently caused the ending of the slave trade, I explore the social and economic forces that made ending the slave trade possible and desirable, and then explore how international law became one tool (along with military and economic pressure) in bringing about that legal and social change.

Here is the argument I make in my book in a nutshell. In the nineteenth century, civil society activists motivated by humanitarian concerns (of both religious and secular origin) that were sometimes phrased in terms of natural rights began to organize against the slave trade. 18 They gained sufficient political support that, as is well known, in 1807 the British parliament banned participation in the slave trade by British subjects. 19 After that, these abolitionists lobbied the British government to get other governments to ban the slave trade as well, since a unilateral ban would not do much good. Economic and political interests of various sorts (not all rooted in idealism) converged. For example, British slave plantation owners in the West Indies were concerned that their businesses would be hurt if French plantations continued to import new, cheap slaves and they could not. Once abolitionists had gained the upper hand in Parliament and secured legislation banning the importation of slaves into British colonies, the plantation owners wanted other countries to be stopped from slave trading as well. Based on these various domestic constituencies, the British government incorporated slave-trade abolition into its foreign policy. 20 The British government then persuaded (using a combination of bribes, threats, and moral argument) other governments to join a network of bilateral treaties banning the slave trade, and created international courts to enforce the treaties. 21 This moment was the first time a global network of treaties of this sort was created for humanitarian purposes (for protection of individual humans not on the basis that they were nationals of either contracting state party, but rather on the ground that what was being done to them should be done to no human), and the first time international courts were used to enforce such an international regime. It was a legal innovation, designed to achieve a foreign policy objective supported by domestic political constituencies with various motivations.

In this respect, the slave-trade treaty regime was the result of a social movement using many of the tools of advocacy common in international human rights activism today — petitions, speaking tours, boycotts, rallies, and so forth. For example, in 1814, three-quarters of a million people (out of a national population of twelve million in Britain) signed petitions in support of including a stronger anti-slave trade provision in the peace treaty with France. 22 The lead treaty negotiator for the British, the Duke of Wellington, commented in his correspondence on the “degree of frenzy” in London about the slave trade, noting that “[p]eople in general appear to think that it would suit the policy of this nation to go to war to put an end to that abominable traffic.” 23

I do not suggest that British antislavery efforts were motivated solely by altruism but instead acknowledge the complex interplay of political factions motivated by a variety of different concerns. 24 Anyone who advances the contrary position — that the entire British antislavery effort was motivated by imperial ambition and that more idealistic motives were not a factor in any significant actor’s decision-making — has a much tougher position to square with the historical record. 25 There are thousands of archival pages of private correspondence from ship captains, judges, Foreign Office officials, politicians, and abolitionist leaders expressing a moral repugnance towards the slave trade; it is conceivable that each individual was in the grips of false consciousness, and was actually subconsciously seeking to bolster Britain’s empire, but that seems implausible as a total explanation. To be sure, some people who supported the effort to suppress the slave trade were primarily motivated by money, power, and self interest — and as I say in the book, Britain would not have campaigned for abolition if it had been devastating to its economic and political interests 26 — but some were motivated by idealism. 27 As liberal international relations theorists have long noted, states’ actions in the international realm are usually the product of multiple domestic interest groups, which may act with different motivations.

Nor do I claim that the slave-trade treaties or courts played a primary causal role in the ending of the slave trade. 28 Instead, I suggest that they had an impact on the slave trade but also suffered from some significant constraints that limited their impact. To spell out the impact and weaknesses, I rely on both quantitative data (about the percentage of slave ships that ended up in one form of adjudication or another, and the use of various flags by ships in the trade, how these flags changed over time, and how they were temporally related to changes in the treaty regimes) and qualitative information from debates at the time (in the form of hundreds of pages of testimony before Parliament, in which participants in the treaty system testified) about whether the treaty system was working. 29 I acknowledge the many factors at play in the slave trade over the course of the nineteenth century, including economic changes. 30 To the extent that I posit a causal mechanism at all, I suggest that the existence of the treaties and the international norm against the slave trade was one factor altering the perception of the legitimacy of the slave trade and putting additional pressure for change on various national governments, which ultimately ended the trade by effectively enforcing domestic law bans on slave imports. 31

Moreover, I note that, like many international treaties, the slave-trade treaties were a means of solving coordination problems and the prisoner’s dilemma by creating a mechanism for commitment and cooperation. 32 I suppose it is possible that the treaties had no effect at all and that states could all independently have abandoned a lucrative practice like the transatlantic slave trade for their own reasons and without any coordination or mutual commitment, but rational choice theory suggests that possibility is unlikely. 33

I also suggest a darker relationship between law and society in noting that British military force was an important part of securing the enforcement of the treaties, and I acknowledge that (not without cause) many observers thought the whole scheme was a method of advancing British imperial interests. 34 And I note that the end of the transatlantic slave trade did not mean the end of slavery, or of slave trading in other forms and in other regions. 35 It is clear that those who were formerly enslaved and their descendants were not well treated far into the twentieth century.

If I say that the treaties played a “surprisingly central” role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, I meant to put the emphasis on “surprising” because it is surprising that they played any role at all. One would be hard pressed to find a serious legal academic today who would argue that “law” unilaterally and independently “caused” a major social change. Take the American civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. The most relevance that law ekes out in the major accounts is something like this: Social, economic, and political factors in American society changed in the early twentieth century, which created the circumstances whereby African Americans’ equality claims became socially plausible. Additionally, the growth of a political elite and a broader social movement supporting some version of such equality set the stage for the Supreme Court to decide Brown v. Board of Education and subsequent cases. Together, this environment may (or may not) have galvanized political elites and popular social movement participants, which may have helped play a part in getting Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, which may or may not have had a big impact on actual equality in our society. 36

If anything, my book tells an almost anodyne law-and-society story: social movements (in this case, abolitionism) impacted the law (in this case, international law), which in turn (along with economic, political, and other factors) eventually had some sort of impact on society (in this case, global society). The argument that the treaties against the slave trade had no impact whatsoever on the suppression of the transatlantic slave trade seems a much harder causal claim to make than that they did have some impact. The oceans were too vast to be thoroughly policed by the British navy (even at the peak of its naval dominance and imperial aspirations), and multiple nations had to cooperate to end the trade.

Nor do I disagree that other things Alston mentions, such as the American Revolution, the slave uprising in San Domingue in 1791, rebellions onboard slave ships, economics, 37 or imperialism, all may have played a role in the end of the slave trade (not to mention the American Civil War, which he does not highlight). 38 Alston places great weight on accounts that emphasize that the slave trade-abolition campaign advanced British imperial efforts. 39 But as Alston notes, “[n]one of this is to suggest that imperialist justifications, objectives, and means constitute the entire picture.” 40 Any kind of causal story that focuses solely on one aspect of society, economics, or ideology is likely to miss the multiple factors that converged in the ending of the slave trade. To claim that international law was a factor we should examine is not to claim that it was the only one.

But even if one wants to defend the claim that the treaties’ impact on the ultimate end of the transatlantic slave trade was so trivial as to be not worth attention, one still has to reckon with the fact that the courts that were created by the treaties freed 80,000 individual human beings from slavery. As Alston notes, and as I myself discuss in my book, many of these individual people ended up in conditions that weren’t much better than slavery, and 80,000 was a relatively insignificant fraction of the overall transatlantic trade. But, as my book explains, in certain critical years, either the international courts or the British courts operating under a theory of universal jurisdiction captured significant numbers of known slave trading voyages — thirty-nine percent in the peak year of 1835. 41 Indeed, one of the topics I explore is the ebb and flow of court cases in relation to political and military developments, and why holes in the legal regime meant that the courts were ultimately never successful in touching anything close to a majority of cases. And I spend an entire chapter of the book describing how those freed by the courts ended up in conditions not much better than slavery itself. 42

But in raw human terms, any international court, any international law that actually has some concrete and direct impact on 80,000 human beings — even if the impact is just being granted formal legal freedom at a moment when they were about to be sold in chattel slavery — is “surprisingly” effective, if only because the baseline assumption of nonlawyers is that law and courts have no effect at all. Many modern international courts — about which tens of thousands of pages have been written — have not had any similar direct impact. As of this writing, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has only convicted one person, after a decade of operation. Perhaps no one should pay attention to the ICC. But those who are, nevertheless, paying attention to the ICC might also want to pay attention to what factors made it possible for the slave-trade courts to grant legal freedom to 80,000 people — and, as I explore in my book, what factors stopped them from having an even greater impact. 43

Why should we care about the role of international law in the end of the slave trade? Perhaps historians of the slave trade might care a bit, but most of us are not historians of the slave trade. As I suggested in the preceding paragraph, my contention is that those who seek to design and use the tools of international law today may gain valuable insights about the relationship between international legal institutions, society, and political power by studying the interplay of these factors in the past.

Until recently, the conventional wisdom focused on the post-World War II period as the key moment at which “international human rights” as such became institutionally rooted in international discourse, through measures such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the Genocide Convention and the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. 44 More recent scholars have emphasized and explored roots further back in history, whether in ancient philosophical and religious traditions, 45 the Enlightenment, 46 the American and French revolutions, or specific developments in the nineteenth century. 47

While my book argues for careful consideration of the slave-trade episode as an element of the history, I do not significantly disagree with the large group of writers who treat other time periods as significant or relevant to contemporary human rights. In this respect, I do not disagree with Alston’s claim that human rights is “polycentric” and that multiple data points may be relevant to different aspects of the field. 48

Alston is correct, however, to highlight the importance of my disagreement with revisionist historians of human rights, most notably Moyn. As Alston notes, Moyn argues that human rights “emerged in the 1970s seemingly from nowhere,” 49 that earlier concepts that appear similar in certain respects to contemporary human rights are faux amis (or false cognates) to the current concept, and that those who argue that earlier events are relevant are at best misguided and at worst blinded by ideological devotion to human rights activism.

As Alston notes, part of the disagreement stems from the definitional assumptions “that inform the choice of criteria against which each author determines when human rights ‘began,’ or came to matter, or passed some other designated threshold.” 50 Moyn defines international human rights as “a set of global political norms providing the creed of a transnational social movement” 51 that involves as a central concept the detachment of rights from the nation-state. As Alston describes it, two claims are central to Moyn’s assertion: “(1) the norms need to be ‘global’ in the sense that they are not merely rights claimed by citizens against their own state but instead bypass or transcend the authority of the state; and (2) they need to be championed by a powerful transnational movement.” 52 I tackle these criteria in reverse order.

As Alston notes, the second prong of Moyn’s implicit criteria excludes many developments that others reasonably understand to form a part of the modern development of human rights — notably, the legal developments of the late 1940s — because a mass global social movement on the scale he demands did not emerge (and, as Alston points out, could not have emerged) until the 1970s. 53 I do not disagree with Moyn that the scale of the contemporary international human rights movement is significant, but I believe that it is nevertheless worth paying greater attention to earlier rights-focused transnational social movements (like the abolition movement and, as discussed below, the women’s suffrage movement) that, although smaller in scale and ambition, were in certain ways more similar to contemporary international nongovernmental human rights organizations than Moyn acknowledges.

In his book, Moyn dismisses the significance of both the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements of the nineteenth century. The women’s movement gets particularly short shrift: “Insofar as a generally rights-based movement like the women’s movement took on international form, its internationalism was about sharing techniques and building confidence for national agitation, not making the global forum itself a scene of invention or reform.” 54 This distinction seems unconvincing, since much of contemporary international human rights practice precisely involves “sharing techniques and building confidence for national agitation.” And, in any case, even if the early women’s rights movement (though involving international congresses and extensive correspondence between activists from many different countries 55 ) did not make use of the global forum in the way Moyn thinks relevant, abolitionism did make the “global forum” a “scene of invention or reform” through international treaty-making. For example, as noted above, mass petition drives urged the inclusion of a measure addressing the slave trade in peace treaties between Britain and France in 1814, 56 and the abolitionist movement continued to put pressure on the British government to persist in its efforts to end the slave trade for decades, as reflected in parliamentary hearings on the topic. The delegates at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention voted in favor of a proposal for dramatically expanding the jurisdiction of the slave-trade treaty courts, and the British government in turn drafted a treaty that would have done just that (although it could not persuade other countries to adopt it). 57 The tools of international law were not the only, or even the main, thing that abolitionists focused on, but international law was a recurrent aspect of the movement’s strategy for achieving global social change.

Moreover, the movement for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery involved transborder activism by nongovernmental, civil-society organizations that is linked in important ways to contemporary international activism. Later campaigns for reform in other areas — for example, the movement for women’s suffrage — grew directly out of the abolition effort, as activists who had learned organizing techniques in the context of abolitionism turned to other issues. As scholars have explained, “[t]he transnational antislavery campaign provided a ‘language of politics’ and organizational and tactical recipes for other transnational campaigns as well. The women’s suffrage campaign initially drew many of its activists and tactics from the antislavery movement.” 58 Antislavery was at “the vanguard of a new mode of collective action,” 59 in which organizers deployed “a new repertoire of public meetings, demonstrations, and special interest associations, while using newspapers to project their demands and presence onto a national and international stage.” 60

It would be one thing to dismiss the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements as entirely irrelevant if there were no connections at all between these movements and twentieth-century human rights-focused movements. But there were, in fact, links not only in the similarity of tactics, but in the continuous organizational life of certain nongovernmental organizations; 61 in the invocation of the memory of these past protest movements through, among other things, visual imagery and literary references; 62 and in their shared focus on individual rights (something that distinguishes these movements from other twentieth century transnational movements, like those tied to communism or decolonization). Particularly in the United States, campaigners for abolition were transformed into campaigners for women’s legal rights. As one abolitionist wrote, “in striving to strike [the slaves’] irons off, we found most surely that we were manacled ourselves.” 63 At the time, “[M]arried women could not own property, make contracts, bring suits, or sit on juries. They could be legally beaten by their husbands and were required at any moment to submit to their husbands’ sexual demands.” 64 The comparison between marriage and slavery was made by supporters of greater rights for women as early as the seventeenth century in France in novels and other literary works, and eventually was invoked in countries including Germany, Britain, and the United States. 65 As one scholar explains: The power of the slavery analogy, for feminists, was its insistence that women, and particularly women who married, were individuals in their own right, that they possessed “human rights” and free will and could not be legally disposed of like chattel or forced, even for family reasons, to do things against their will. 66

I also disagree with Moyn’s first implicit criteria with regard to the substance of “human rights.” Moyn asserts that a key substantive aspect of contemporary human rights is the severing of rights from the nation-state: “[T]he central event in human rights history is the recasting of rights as entitlements that might contradict the sovereign nation-state from above and outside rather than serve as its foundation.” 67 It is on this basis that he dismisses the works of historians like Professor Lynn Hunt and the rights talk of the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions. 68 In this regard, I do not disagree with Moyn that one important difference between the contemporary conception of human rights and ideas of rights and the Enlightenment ideas of rights is the move from the nation-state to the international community as the guarantor of rights. 69 Unlike Moyn, I believe the slave-trade treaties made the leap to internationalism in a conceptually and legally significant way. 70

In this respect, Moyn’s definition does not closely track contemporary international human rights, which, as Alston notes, remains heavily focused in law and in practice today on the nation-state. 71 Human rights are defined in treaties that are ratified by nation-states, and those treaties impose obligations on states to protect and fulfill those rights. 72 States voluntarily consent by treaty to participate in supranational adjudication mechanisms (like the European Court of Human Rights) and it is national governments that remain responsible for implementing the decisions of those courts. Even as a mass social movement, a huge portion of human rights activism focuses on implementation and enforcement of human rights through national governments, which remain the only bodies truly capable of ensuring consistent compliance with human rights norms. To be sure, there are strands of contemporary human rights discourse that evoke the idea of naturalistic universal rights transcending the nation-state (for example, in the concept of jus cogens ), but they are far from dominant.

Why is it so important for Moyn to dismiss as irrelevant the abolition and women’s rights movements? Why not acknowledge that, while they certainly did not lead teleologically to the human rights movement of today, they had some influence on the way it has developed? Or, conversely, why would anyone persist in arguing (as I do) that they are relevant? In short, why does the history of human rights matter?

1. The Evolution of Ideas . — Moyn begins the first chapter of his book with a reference to Jorge Luis Borges’s essay on Franz Kafka. In the essay, Borges traces ways in which scraps of text from authors ancient and recent resemble Kafka. But, of course, no one would have seen this resemblance if there were no Kafka, which is Borges’s point. From this, Moyn concludes that “[i]f the past is read as preparation for a surprising recent event, both are distorted.” 73

In a certain sense, Moyn is taking aim at a straw man. No serious scholar subscribes to a narrative of inevitable progress, in which all the streams of the past converge in a mighty river of human rights triumphalism. Predestination has been out of fashion for a few centuries now. Only Martin Luther King Jr. could get away with saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” and even he suggested that it was an arc, not a line. Human progress seems quite contingent, unpredictable. Like Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” 74 human life unfolds through infinite forks in the road.

But at the same time, ideas do not come out of nowhere. The past gives us a vocabulary, and that vocabulary in turn shapes the very ways in which we think about problems. It would not have been possible for human rights to emerge as a global discourse in the 1970s if the language, ideas, laws, and organizing tools that served as the building blocks of the movement had not already been in existence in some form. As Alston describes it, Moyn’s theory is one of a Big Bang: from nothingness, matter. But the last Big Bang was more than thirteen billion years ago. Most of what humans do seems instead to be based on the remix method. Even Albert Einstein had to know about Newtonian physics in order to depart from it. Disco may have burst onto the world stage in the 1970s, but no one would have imagined its rhythms if they had not listened to jazz, swing, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. 75 Kafka may have created his precursors, but he wouldn’t — couldn’t — have been Kafka if he had never read anything in the Western literary canon.

The idea of international human rights, like other human ideas, is a remix. Yes, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not have an immediate, measurable impact as soon as the U.N. General Assembly voted on it in 1948. But countries copied parts of it into their new constitutions. Activists in national struggles invoked it from time to time in the next decades. It provided a language for making claims against power, a language which certainly became more popular in the 1970s, but which could not have become the lingua franca it is today if it had been so unfamiliar, so novel that no one understood it. If the Universal Declaration did not exist, did not already have some cultural valence, it would not have been possible to convince the U.S.S.R. to agree to abide by the Declaration’s principles in the Helsinki Accords in 1977. And, reaching backwards, the Universal Declaration could hardly have been drafted as it was without the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man to riff off. And those documents surely could not have taken the form they did if Locke and Rousseau had never written a word. And so on and so forth.

2. The Use We Make of the Past . — Moyn casts himself as a neutral observer, turning a cool eye on the feverish writings of all the true-believing church historians. Moyn suggests that writers who contend that international human rights have a history prior to the 1970s have their vision distorted by their near-religious devotion to the cause of human rights:

Historians of human rights approach their subject, in spite of its novelty, the way church historians once approached theirs. They regard the basic cause — much as the church historian treated the Christian religion — as a saving truth, discovered rather than made in history. . . . Hagiography, for the sake of moral imitation of those who chase the flame, becomes the main genre. And the organizations that finally appear to institutionalize human rights are treated like the early church: a fledgling, but hopefully universal, community of believers struggling for good in a vale of tears. If the cause fails, it is because of evil; if it succeeds, it is not by accident but because the cause is just. These approaches provide the myths that the new movement wants or needs. 76

Moyn is not kind to those he views as quasi-religious zealots: “Much as Christianity was once attributed to Jesus rather than to the long-developing stages and politics of the institutionalization of his memory and teachings, the historiography of the 1940s teaches much about the substance of the Universal Declaration but nothing about why almost no one noticed it when it appeared (or if they learned of it, rejected its good news, much like Jesus’s own contemporaries).” 77 In Moyn’s view, Princeton politics professor Gary Bass is motivated by his early career as a journalist in the Balkans and “the desire to vindicate the model of moral engagement of [his] youth”; 78 Aryeh Neier’s recent book (on the precise period Moyn claims we should focus on) is dismissed because he is a “[m]ovement activist[]” whose writings can only be viewed as a primary source, not as an analytically useful study; 79 Hunt has invented a “creation myth”; 80 and I am described by Moyn as a “Stanford law professor who helped argue Rumsfeld v. Padilla before the Supreme Court,” 81 as if my ability to write a legal brief has irredeemably tainted my ability to read primary sources.

Perhaps some of us have been influenced by Justice Holmes’s warning that “it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived,” 82 but Moyn surely has a view on contemporary human rights just as much as anyone else. As Alston notes, there are deeper issues at work in the debate about the history of human rights: “There is a struggle for the soul of the human rights movement, and it is being waged in large part through the proxy of genealogy.” 83

For his part, Moyn seems clearly (if somewhat vaguely) taken with various aspects of the traditional left-wing critique of rights. How, he asks, “has international criminal justice ascended so quickly, and so high, even as social justice is increasingly marginalized, undermined from within at home and worsened through the victory of the free market on the world stage?” 84 He suggests that “[t]he rise of international criminal accountability has occurred alongside the eclipse of prior schemes of global justice, which promoted not retributive punishment but social renovation to achieve liberty and equality,” 85 and seems disenchanted with the ways in which “human rights inevitably became bound up with the power of the powerful.” 86 Moyn’s ambition is to extirpate the false roots of human rights, so that we will be free to imagine new utopias in its place. Moreover, Moyn predicts rather definitively that “[c]ontinuing geopolitical change will lead other ideologies and practices to seem more plausible for better or worse. These will take over the scale and salience that human rights have won, and they will do so rapidly and easily.” 87 Even us church historians do not claim that kind of ability to predict the future.

Moyn says of my book that “Martinez permits herself to dream for a moment when she suggests that her story might someday help us see that the powerless and poor of the world need our help just as the slaves once did.” 88 But it is Moyn who seems more occupied with dreaming of a vague future of alternative utopian visions.

Those of us who look before 1977 to understand international human rights actually have more modest ambitions than predicting the future. Rather, as I suggest in my book, “[t]he antislavery movement’s use of international law and legal institutions as part of a broader social, political, and military strategy can help us better understand the potential role of international law today,” and I highlight both the “limits” and “potential” of international law demonstrated by its role in the ending of the transatlantic slave trade. 89 There are, I suggest, concrete lessons for the legal institutions of today to be drawn from legal institutions of the past. There is a middle course between cynicism and naíveté, and it is in this space that progress is made.

Professor of Law and Warren Christopher Professor in the Practice of International Law and Diplomacy, Stanford Law School. Thanks to Robert Gordon, Daniel Ho, and Daniel Hulsebosch for their very helpful comments.

1 . See Philip Alston, Does the Past Matter?: On the Origins of Human Rights , 126 Harv. L. Rev. 1 (2013) (reviewing Jenny S. Martinez, The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law (2012)).

2 . See generally Martinez, supra note 1.

3 . Id. at 138.

4 . Id. at 149.

5 . See Alston, supra note 1, at 2071.

6 . Id. at 2044 (quoting Martinez, supra note 1, at 13) (internal quotation marks omitted).

7 . Gary J. Bass, The Old New Thing , New Republic (Oct. 20, 2010),; see also David Brion Davis, Book Jacket to Seymour Drescher, Abolition (2009) (describing Drescher’s book as exploring “the world’s most important gains in human rights”). Numerous books and articles by historians contain similar language. See, e.g. , The Old South’s Modern Worlds: Slavery, Region, and Nation in the Age of Progress 314 (L. Diane Barnes et al. eds. 2011) (“Slavery’s legal abolition stands as perhaps the greatest human rights achievement in world history . . . .”).

8 . Seymour Drescher, Capitalism and Antislavery (1986).

9 . Id. at 5.

10 . Robin Blackburn, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights 485 (2011).

11 . Alston, supra note 1, at 2049.

13 . Id. at 2048 (quoting Martinez, supra note 1, at 17) (internal quotation marks omitted). I have a slightly longer section in my Yale Law Journal article than in the book on the origins of British abolitionism, see Jenny S. Martinez, Anti-Slavery Courts and the Dawn of International Human Rights Law , 117 Yale L.J. 550, 557-60 (2008), which cites sources debating the role of capitalism, the broader rise of humanitarianism in culture, the growth of religious thought, the motivations of participants in the popular abolitionist movement, and other factors. Except for those works that claim a kind of false consciousness — for example, that those talking about “rights” were really only concerned with bolstering their economic position — none of these considerations seem to negate the fact that the concept of rights played a role in how people thought and talked about abolition.

14 . See Blackburn, supra note 10, at 5. Alston also chides me for citing Davis’s now-quite-old work in support of the role of Enlightenment thought in the emergence of abolitionism, but Davis’s foundational survey of the history of western thought about slavery has been refined but hardly replaced by even his own later work. I would still direct a reader seeking an introduction to the discussion of slavery in Enlightenment thought and its absorption into abolitionist thinking to David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture 365-445 (1966).

15 . Alston, supra note 1, at 2051.

17 . Id. at 2050.

18 . See Martinez, supra note 1, at 16-20; see also Martinez, supra note 13, at 557-60, and sources cited therein.

19 . See Martinez, supra note 1, at 22-23.

20 . See Martinez, supra note 13, at 563-64.

21 . See Martinez, supra note 1, at 31-37.

22 . See id. at 28-29.

23 . Id. at 29 (emphasis omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

24 . See, e.g. , id. at 23 (noting that slave owners in the British West Indies had economic motivations to support slave-trade suppression after Britain banned the practice for its subjects); id. at 82-83 (describing extensive parliamentary debates by different factions about whether Britain should remove itself from treaties regarding the slave trade); id. at 169 (noting that realist international relations theorists are likely to “focus on the material self-interest of Britain” and “Britain’s use of its hegemonic military and economic power to achieve its goals”).

25 . See, e.g. , Samuel Moyn, Of Deserts & Promised Lands , Nation, Mar. 19, 2012, at 32, 32 (suggesting that my book “simply assum[es] that pure benevolence led [Britain] to establish the international courts” when, in fact, “[h]umanity provided the warrant for what one observer acidly called ‘war in disguise,’ when the policing of the seas was crucial, in an age of rival empires”).

26 . See Martinez, supra note 1, at 14.

27 . Moral ideals and more material interests may coincide or interact in complex ways. See generally Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (2006).

28 . Compare id. at 168 (“But the narrative recounted here at least suggests the possibility that it was no mere coincidence of social conditions in different countries . . . . Instead, at least some small role was played by international treaties and international courts themselves.”), with Alston, supra note 1, at 6.

29 . Martinez, supra note 1, at 78-98.

30 . Id. at 15 (arguing that we should look at “[t]he antislavery movement’s use of international law and legal institutions as part of a broader social, political, and military strategy”); id. at 146 (“Other factors in Cuba — including changes in attitudes, the increased domestic enforcement of anti-slave trade laws, a decline in sugar prices and a concomitant drop in the value of slaves, and the perception that the institution of slavery itself might be doomed — also played a significant role in the final suppression of the Cuban slave trade in the 1860s.”).

31 . Id. at 168 (“Changes in domestic attitudes were critical to the final suppression of the slave trade. The possibility that the universality of the antislavery treaty regime may have played some part in this shift in attitudes is at least worthy of further investigation.”).

32 . See id. at 169 (“Institutionalists will likely see the treaties and the court system they created as rational, utility-maximizing mechanisms for cooperation. In the absence of such mechanisms, even a state that wanted to abolish the slave trade would be tempted to defect to gain material advantage, but the regime created the opportunity for cooperation and thus mutual long-term gains for all participants.” (footnote omitted)).

33 . Slavery and slave trading were profitable. While idealistic abolitionists may have had political influence in some national governments, moneyed interests had influence as well. If Britain had unilaterally stopped trading in slaves, Portugal would have stood to profit that much more from allowing its merchants to continue to trade in slaves (and Britain would have stood at that much greater an economic disadvantage if Portugal had continued trading than if everyone had stopped at once). Once countries like Britain and the United States stopped allowing their ships to participate, slave trading interests in Spain, Portugal, and Brazil had that much more incentive to lobby for continuing the traffic. Even if both the Spanish government and Portuguese governments had agreed that, for humanitarian reasons, it would have been better for all concerned if the slave trade stopped, without a means of ensuring that the other country was not “cheating,” it would have been hard for either country to make the sacrifice unilaterally, knowing that a rival could gain economic advantage as a result of its decision.

34 . See, e.g. , Martinez, supra note 1, at 27 (noting that other countries “insinuated that Britain was not interested in the slave trade at all, but was simply using the humanitarian cause as a cover for its self-interested efforts to dominate maritime commerce”); id. at 46-55 (recounting America’s skepticism of British motivations and quoting John Quincy Adams’s diary description of British efforts as a “barefaced and impudent attempt of the British to obtain in time of peace that right of searching and seizing the ships of other nations which they so outrageously abused during war,” id. at 46 (quoting John Quincy Adams, 6 June 1817 , in 3 Memoirs of John Quincy Adams Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, 557 (Charles Francis Adams ed., 1969)) (internal quotation marks omitted)); id. at 103 (“The Spanish viewed this proposal as a reflection of Britain’s insincerity in opposing the slave trade on humanitarian grounds and its secret desire to bolster the labor forces in its own colonies”); id. at 169-70 (“Postcolonialists might view the entire enterprise as a by-product of European desire to establish economically viable colonies in Africa.”); Martinez, supra note 9, at 559 (noting that some historians have argued “that the antislavery movement served to legitimate free labor, thereby reinforcing the interests of new capitalist elites in Britain”).

35 . See Martinez, supra note 1, at 13 (“To be sure, modern forms of forced labor remain a significant human rights issue affecting millions of people . . . .”).

36 . See, e.g. , Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality 6-7 (2004) (discussing disagreements among scholars about the importance of Supreme Court decisions with regard to civil rights).

37 . Compare Alston, supra note 1, at 2059 (suggesting the importance of debate about economic dimensions of abolitionism), with Martinez, supra note 9, at 558-59 (discussing debate about economic dimensions of abolitionism).

38 . See Alston, supra note 1, at 2059.

39 . See id. at 2060. I do, in fact, note in multiple places the ways in which Britain’s policies were perceived as tied to its imperial ambitions. See, e.g. , sources cited supra note 33.

40 . Alston, supra note 1, at 2060.

41 . Martinez, supra note 1, at 80.

42 . Moyn suggests that I “only grudgingly admit[] that slaves freed by abolitionist efforts, especially in Cuba, lived out their lives in penurious circumstances and often forced labor.” See Moyn, supra note 25, at 33. Chapter five of my book is entirely devoted to this topic. See Martinez, supra note 1, at 99-113.

43 . Alston also suggests that the accomplishment of the abolitionists was incomplete, since modern forms of slavery persist even today, and European powers engaged in extremely violent and even genocidal colonial practices even after they stopped the transatlantic slave trade. Alston, supra note 1, at 14. This suggestion is undoubtedly true, but if one is tempted to describe the end of the transatlantic slave trade as an utterly insignificant event, imagine the counterfactual: despite the many forms of injustice that persist today, would the world not be a less just place if slaves were still being shipped from Africa to America?

44 . See generally, e.g. , Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World (2005); From Nuremberg to the Hague (Philippe Sands ed., 2003); Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New (2001); Paul Gordon Lauren, The Evolution of International Human Rights (3d. ed. 2011); Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell” (2002).

45 . See Alston, supra note 1, at 2063 & nn.87-89.

46 . See, e.g. , Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights (2007).

47 . See, e.g. , Gary J. Bass, Freedom’s Battle (2008).

48 . See Alston, supra note 1, at 2078; see also id. at 2077-78.

49 . Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia 3 (2010).

50 . Alston, supra note 1, at 2071.

51 . Moyn, supra note 48, at 11.

52 . Alston, supra note 1, at 2072.

53 . Samuel Moyn, Substance, Scale, and Salience: The Recent Historiography of Human Rights , 8 Ann. Rev. L. & Soc. Sci. 123, 128 (2012) (suggesting that “no international human rights movement” of significant scale emerged in the 1940s).

54 . Moyn, supra note 48, at 39.

55 . Margaret E. Keck & Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders 53-56 (1998).

56 . See Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains 137, 230 (2005).

57 . Martinez, supra note 1, at 101.

58 . See Margaret Keck & Kathryn Sikkink, Historical Precursors to Modern Transnational Social Movements and Networks , in Globalizations and Social Movements 35, 37-38 (John A. Guidry et al. eds., 2000).

59 . Seymour Drescher, Women’s Mobilization in the Era of Slave Emancipation: Some Anglo-French Comparisons , in Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery in the Era of Emancipation 98, 112 (Kathryn Kish Sklar & James Brewer Stewart eds., 2007) [hereinafter Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery].

60 . Id. ; see also Elizabeth J. Clapp, Introduction , in Women, Dissent, and Anti-Slavery in Britain and America, 1790-1865, 16-17 (Elizabeth J. Clapp & Julie Roy Jeffrey eds., 2011); Kathryn Kish Sklar & James Brewer Stewart, Introduction , in Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery, supra note 58, at xi, xii.

61 . See Martinez, supra note 1, at 152.

62 . See, e.g. , Zoe Trodd, In Possession of Space: Abolitionist Memory and Spatial Transformation in Civil Rights Literature and Photography , in Representing Segregation 223, 223-43 (Brian Norman & Piper Kendrix Williams eds., 2010).

63 . David Brion Davis, Declaring Equality: Sisterhood and Slavery , in Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery, supra note 58, at 3, 11 (alteration in original) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Bonnie S. Anderson, Joyous Greetings, 1830-1860, 122 (2000)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

65 . See Karen Offen, How (and Why) the Analogy of Marriage with Slavery Provided the Springboard for Women’s Rights Demands in France, 1640-1848 , in Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery, supra note 58, at 57, 59. See generally Bonnie S. Anderson, Frauenemancipation and Beyond: The Use of the Concept of Emancipation by Early European Feminists , in Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery, supra note 58, at 82.

66 . Offen, supra note 64, at 72-73.

67 . See Moyn, supra note 48, at 13 (2013).

68 . See id. at 22-29.

69 . See id. at 38.

70 . As I discuss in my book, earlier traditions in international law — for example, the writings of the Spanish scholastics that helped justify colonization on humanitarian-intervention grounds — contained traces of this idea, but the attempt to embody such concerns in treaties with concrete humanitarian objectives first emerged in connection with the slave trade in the nineteenth century. See Martinez, supra note 1, at 134—39.

71 . See Alston, supra note 1, at 2069-70.

72 . See, e.g. , Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Dec. 10, 1984, 1465 U.N.T.S. 85; American Convention on Human Rights, Nov. 22, 1969, 1144 U.N.T.S. 144; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Dec. 16 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Dec. 16 1966, 993 U.N.T.S. 3; Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Apr. 11, 1950, 213 U.N.T.S. 221.

73 . Moyn, supra note 48, at 11.

74 . Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths , Ellery Queen’s Mystery Mag., Aug. 1948, 101 (Anthony Boucher trans.).

75 . Cf. Bass, supra note 7.

76 . Moyn, supra note 48, at 5-6.

77 . Moyn, supra note 52, at 128.

78 . Samuel Moyn, Spectacular Wrongs , Nation, Oct. 13, 2008, at 31, 35.

79 . Moyn, supra note 52, at 125.

80 . Samuel Moyn, On the Genealogy of Morals , Nation, Apr. 16, 2007, at 25, 31.

81 . Moyn, supra note 25, at 32.

82 . Oliver Wendell Holmes, Memorial Day (May 30, 1884), in The Occasional Speeches of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes 4, 6-7 (Mark DeWolfe Howe ed., 1962).

83 . Alston, supra note 1, at 2077.

84 . Moyn, supra note 25, at 32.

86 . Bass, supra note 7 (quoting Moyn).

87 . Moyn, supra note 52, at 137.

88 . Moyn, supra note 25, at 35.

89 . See Martinez, supra note 1, at 15.

  • Human Rights

May 20, 2013

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Privacy law: positive theory and normative practice.

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history of human rights essay

  • Human Rights Defined
  • The Background of Human Rights
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Originally, people had rights only because of their membership in a group, such as a family. Then, in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great, after conquering the city of Babylon, did something totally unexpected—he freed all slaves to return home. Moreover, he declared people should choose their own religion. The Cyrus Cylinder, a clay tablet containing his statements, is the first human rights declaration in history.

The idea of human rights spread quickly to India, Greece and eventually Rome. The most important advances since then have included:

1215: The Magna Carta —gave people new rights and made the king subject to the law.

1628: The Petition of Right —set out the rights of the people.

1776: The United States Declaration of Independence —proclaimed the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

1789: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen —a document of France, stating that all citizens are equal under the law.

1948: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights —the first document listing the 30 rights to which everyone is entitled.

For a more in-depth look at the history of human rights, go to the United for Human Rights website. 

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Essay on Human Rights: Samples in 500 and 1500

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  • Oct 28, 2023

Essay on Human Rights-01 (1)

Essay writing is an integral part of the school curriculum and various academic and competitive exams like IELTS , TOEFL , SAT , UPSC , etc. It is designed to test your command of the English language and how well you can gather your thoughts and present them in a structure with a flow. To master your ability to write an essay, you must read as much as possible and practise on any given topic. This blog brings you a detailed guide on how to write an essay on Human Rights , with useful essay samples on Human rights.

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The basic human rights, 200 words essay on human rights, 500 words essay on human rights, 500+ words essay on human rights in india, 1500 words essay on human rights, importance of human rights, essay on human rights pdf, what are human rights.

Human rights mark everyone as free and equal, irrespective of age, gender, caste, creed, religion and nationality. The United Nations adopted human rights in light of the atrocities people faced during the Second World War. On the 10th of December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Its adoption led to the recognising of human rights as the foundation for freedom, justice and peace for every individual. Although it’s not legally binding, most nations have incorporated these human rights into their constitutions and domestic legal frameworks. Human rights safeguard us from discrimination and guarantee that our most basic needs are protected.

Did you know that the 10th of December is celebrated as Human Rights Day!

Before we move on to the essays on human rights, let’s check out the basics of what they are.

Human Rights

Also Read: What are Human Rights?

Here is a 200-word short sample essay on basic Human Rights.

Human rights are a set of rights given to every human being regardless of their gender, caste, creed, religion, nation, location or economic status. These are said to be moral principles that illustrate certain standards of human behaviour. Protected by law , these rights are applicable everywhere and at any time. Basic human rights include the right to life, right to a fair trial, right to remedy by a competent tribunal, right to liberty and personal security, right to own property, right to education, right of peaceful assembly and association, right to marriage and family, right to nationality and freedom to change it, freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination, freedom from slavery, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of movement, right of opinion and information, right to adequate living standard and freedom from interference with privacy, family, home and correspondence.

Also Read: Law Courses

Check out this 500-word long essay on Human Rights.

Every person has dignity and value. One of the ways that we recognise the fundamental worth of every person is by acknowledging and respecting their human rights. Human rights are a set of principles concerned with equality and fairness. They recognise our freedom to make choices about our lives and develop our potential as human beings. They are about living a life free from fear, harassment or discrimination.

Human rights can broadly be defined as the basic rights that people worldwide have agreed are essential. These include the right to life, the right to a fair trial, freedom from torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the rights to health, education and an adequate standard of living. These human rights are the same for all people everywhere – men and women, young and old, rich and poor, regardless of our background, where we live, what we think or believe. This basic property is what makes human rights’ universal’.

Human rights connect us all through a shared set of rights and responsibilities. People’s ability to enjoy their human rights depends on other people respecting those rights. This means that human rights involve responsibility and duties towards other people and the community. Individuals have a responsibility to ensure that they exercise their rights with consideration for the rights of others. For example, when someone uses their right to freedom of speech, they should do so without interfering with someone else’s right to privacy.

Governments have a particular responsibility to ensure that people can enjoy their rights. They must establish and maintain laws and services that enable people to enjoy a life in which their rights are respected and protected. For example, the right to education says that everyone is entitled to a good education. Therefore, governments have an obligation to provide good quality education facilities and services to their people. If the government fails to respect or protect their basic human rights, people can call it to account.

Values of tolerance, equality and respect can help reduce friction within society. Putting human rights ideas into practice can help us create the kind of society we want to live in. There has been tremendous growth in how we think about and apply human rights ideas in recent decades. This growth has had many positive results – knowledge about human rights can empower individuals and offer solutions for specific problems.

Human rights are an important part of how people interact with others at all levels in society – in the family, the community, school, workplace, politics and international relations. Therefore, it is vital that people everywhere strive to understand what human rights are. When people better understand human rights, it is easier for them to promote justice and the well-being of society. 

Also Read: Important Articles in Indian Constitution

Here is an human rights essay focused on India.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. It has been rightly proclaimed in the American declaration of independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Created with certain unalienable rights….” Similarly, the Indian Constitution has ensured and enshrined Fundamental rights for all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, religion, colour, sex or nationality. These basic rights, commonly known as human rights, are recognised the world over as basic rights with which every individual is born.

In recognition of human rights, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made on the 10th of December, 1948. This declaration is the basic instrument of human rights. Even though this declaration has no legal bindings and authority, it forms the basis of all laws on human rights. The necessity of formulating laws to protect human rights is now being felt all over the world. According to social thinkers, the issue of human rights became very important after World War II concluded. It is important for social stability both at the national and international levels. Wherever there is a breach of human rights, there is conflict at one level or the other.

Given the increasing importance of the subject, it becomes necessary that educational institutions recognise the subject of human rights as an independent discipline. The course contents and curriculum of the discipline of human rights may vary according to the nature and circumstances of a particular institution. Still, generally, it should include the rights of a child, rights of minorities, rights of the needy and the disabled, right to live, convention on women, trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation etc.

Since the formation of the United Nations , the promotion and protection of human rights have been its main focus. The United Nations has created a wide range of mechanisms for monitoring human rights violations. The conventional mechanisms include treaties and organisations, U.N. special reporters, representatives and experts and working groups. Asian countries like China argue in favour of collective rights. According to Chinese thinkers, European countries lay stress upon individual rights and values while Asian countries esteem collective rights and obligations to the family and society as a whole.

With the freedom movement the world over after World War II, the end of colonisation also ended the policy of apartheid and thereby the most aggressive violation of human rights. With the spread of education, women are asserting their rights. Women’s movements play an important role in spreading the message of human rights. They are fighting for their own rights and supporting the struggle for human rights of other weaker and deprived sections like bonded labour, child labour, landless labour, unemployed persons, dalits and elderly people.

Unfortunately, violation of human rights continues in most parts of the world. Ethnic cleansing and genocide can still be seen in several parts of the world. Large sections of the world population are deprived of the basic necessities of life i.e. food, shelter and security of life. Right to minimum basic needs viz. Work, health care, education and shelter are denied to them. These deprivations amount to negation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Also Read: Human Rights Courses

Ceck out this detailed 1500-word essay on human rights.

The human right to live and exist, the right to equality, including equality before the law, non-discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, and equality of opportunity in matters of employment, the right to freedom of speech and expression, assembly, association, movement, residence, the right to practice any profession or occupation, the right against exploitation, prohibiting all forms of forced labour, child labour and trafficking in human beings, the right to freedom of conscience, practice and propagation of religion and the right to legal remedies for enforcement of the above are basic human rights. These rights and freedoms are the very foundations of democracy.

Obviously, in a democracy, the people enjoy the maximum number of freedoms and rights. Besides these are political rights, which include the right to contest an election and vote freely for a candidate of one’s choice. Human rights are a benchmark of a developed and civilised society. But rights cannot exist in a vacuum. They have their corresponding duties. Rights and duties are the two aspects of the same coin.

Liberty never means license. Rights pre-suppose the rule of law, where everyone in the society follows a code of conduct and behaviour for the good of all. It is the sense of duty and tolerance that gives meaning to rights. Rights have their basis in the ‘live and let live’ principle. For example, my right to speech and expression involves my duty to allow others to enjoy the same freedom of speech and expression. Rights and duties are inextricably interlinked and interdependent. A perfect balance is to be maintained between the two. Whenever there is an imbalance, there is chaos.

A sense of tolerance, propriety and adjustment is a must to enjoy rights and freedom. Human life sans basic freedom and rights is meaningless. Freedom is the most precious possession without which life would become intolerable, a mere abject and slavish existence. In this context, Milton’s famous and oft-quoted lines from his Paradise Lost come to mind: “To reign is worth ambition though in hell/Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”

However, liberty cannot survive without its corresponding obligations and duties. An individual is a part of society in which he enjoys certain rights and freedom only because of the fulfilment of certain duties and obligations towards others. Thus, freedom is based on mutual respect for each other’s rights. A fine balance must be maintained between the two, or there will be anarchy and bloodshed. Therefore, human rights can best be preserved and protected in a society steeped in morality, discipline and social order.

Violation of human rights is most common in totalitarian and despotic states. In the theocratic states, there is much persecution, and violation in the name of religion and the minorities suffer the most. Even in democracies, there is widespread violation and infringement of human rights and freedom. The women, children and the weaker sections of society are victims of these transgressions and violence.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights’ main concern is to protect and promote human rights and freedom in the world’s nations. In its various sessions held from time to time in Geneva, it adopts various measures to encourage worldwide observations of these basic human rights and freedom. It calls on its member states to furnish information regarding measures complied with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whenever there is a complaint of a violation of these rights. In addition, it reviews human rights situations in various countries and initiates remedial measures when required.

The U.N. Commission was much concerned and dismayed at the apartheid being practised in South Africa till recently. The Secretary-General then declared, “The United Nations cannot tolerate apartheid. It is a legalised system of racial discrimination, violating the most basic human rights in South Africa. It contradicts the letter and spirit of the United Nations Charter. That is why over the last forty years, my predecessors and I have urged the Government of South Africa to dismantle it.”

Now, although apartheid is no longer practised in that country, other forms of apartheid are being blatantly practised worldwide. For example, sex apartheid is most rampant. Women are subject to abuse and exploitation. They are not treated equally and get less pay than their male counterparts for the same jobs. In employment, promotions, possession of property etc., they are most discriminated against. Similarly, the rights of children are not observed properly. They are forced to work hard in very dangerous situations, sexually assaulted and exploited, sold and bonded for labour.

The Commission found that religious persecution, torture, summary executions without judicial trials, intolerance, slavery-like practices, kidnapping, and political disappearance, etc., are being practised even in the so-called advanced countries and societies. The continued acts of extreme violence, terrorism and extremism in various parts of the world like Pakistan, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Somalia, Algeria, Lebanon, Chile, China, and Myanmar, etc., by the governments, terrorists, religious fundamentalists, and mafia outfits, etc., is a matter of grave concern for the entire human race.

Violation of freedom and rights by terrorist groups backed by states is one of the most difficult problems society faces. For example, Pakistan has been openly collaborating with various terrorist groups, indulging in extreme violence in India and other countries. In this regard the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva adopted a significant resolution, which was co-sponsored by India, focusing on gross violation of human rights perpetrated by state-backed terrorist groups.

The resolution expressed its solidarity with the victims of terrorism and proposed that a U.N. Fund for victims of terrorism be established soon. The Indian delegation recalled that according to the Vienna Declaration, terrorism is nothing but the destruction of human rights. It shows total disregard for the lives of innocent men, women and children. The delegation further argued that terrorism cannot be treated as a mere crime because it is systematic and widespread in its killing of civilians.

Violation of human rights, whether by states, terrorists, separatist groups, armed fundamentalists or extremists, is condemnable. Regardless of the motivation, such acts should be condemned categorically in all forms and manifestations, wherever and by whomever they are committed, as acts of aggression aimed at destroying human rights, fundamental freedom and democracy. The Indian delegation also underlined concerns about the growing connection between terrorist groups and the consequent commission of serious crimes. These include rape, torture, arson, looting, murder, kidnappings, blasts, and extortions, etc.

Violation of human rights and freedom gives rise to alienation, dissatisfaction, frustration and acts of terrorism. Governments run by ambitious and self-seeking people often use repressive measures and find violence and terror an effective means of control. However, state terrorism, violence, and human freedom transgressions are very dangerous strategies. This has been the background of all revolutions in the world. Whenever there is systematic and widespread state persecution and violation of human rights, rebellion and revolution have taken place. The French, American, Russian and Chinese Revolutions are glowing examples of human history.

The first war of India’s Independence in 1857 resulted from long and systematic oppression of the Indian masses. The rapidly increasing discontent, frustration and alienation with British rule gave rise to strong national feelings and demand for political privileges and rights. Ultimately the Indian people, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, made the British leave India, setting the country free and independent.

Human rights and freedom ought to be preserved at all costs. Their curtailment degrades human life. The political needs of a country may reshape Human rights, but they should not be completely distorted. Tyranny, regimentation, etc., are inimical of humanity and should be resisted effectively and united. The sanctity of human values, freedom and rights must be preserved and protected. Human Rights Commissions should be established in all the countries to take care of human freedom and rights. In cases of violation of human rights, affected individuals should be properly compensated, and it should be ensured that these do not take place in future.

These commissions can become effective instruments in percolating the sensitivity to human rights down to the lowest levels of the governments and administrations. The formation of the National Humans Rights Commission in October 1993 in India is commendable and should be followed by other countries.

Also Read: Law Courses in India

Human rights are of utmost importance to seek basic equality and human dignity. Human rights ensure that the basic needs of every human are met. They protect vulnerable groups from discrimination and abuse, allow people to stand up for themselves, follow any religion without fear and give them the freedom to express their thoughts freely. In addition, they grant people access to basic education and equal work opportunities. Thus implementing these rights is crucial to ensure freedom, peace and safety.

We hope our sample essays on Human Rights have given you some great ideas. If you are preparing for exams like GMAT, GRE, IELTS or SAT and need guidance for the writing session? Book your one on one session with Leverage Edu experts to get a divisive strategy and preparation tips to crack these examinations!

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Human Rights evolution, a brief history.

By Marco Sutto

From "The CoESPU MAGAZINE" nr. 3- 2019

Selection: " Human Rights evolution, a brief history "  , pag.18

DOI Code: 10.32048/Coespumagazine3.19.3

pic 1

“Human rights” are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of our nationality, residence, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination.

This is the modern concept of our fundamental rights but it was not always this way. The belief that everyone, by virtue of her or his humanity, is entitled to certain human rights is fairly new and is something stemming from an evolution of the consideration of human dignity over the last centuries. Its roots lie in earlier tradition and documents of many cultures.

T he origins  of Human Rights are ideally pinpointed to the year 539 BC. When the troops of Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Cyrus freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. These and other principles were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder known as the Cyrus Cylinder, whose provisions served as inspiration for the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Another cornerstone in Human Rights History is represented by the promulgation of the Magna Charta in 1215 which introduced a raw concept of “Rule of Law” and the basic idea of defined rights and liberties to all persons, which offers protection from arbitrary prosecution and incarceration. Before the Magna Charta, the rule of law,  now considered as a key principle for good governance in any modern democratic society,  was perceived as a divine justice, solely distributed by the monarch or the king or, in this case, King John of England.

An evolution of the concepts expressed by the Magna Carta  is represented by the English Bill of Rights. It was an act signed into law in 1689 by William III and Mary II, who became co-rulers in England after the overthrow of King James II. The bill outlined specific constitutional and civil rights and ultimately gave Parliament power over the monarchy. Many experts regard the English Bill of Rights as the primary law that set the stage for a constitutional monarchy in England. It’s also credited as being an inspiration for the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791).

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen , adopted in 1789, by France’s National Assembly , represents one of the basic charters of human liberties, containing the principles that inspired the French Revolution .

The basic value introduced by the Declaration was that all “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, which were specified as the rights of liberty, private property , the inviolability of the person, and resistance to oppression. All citizens were equal before the law and were to have the right to participate in legislation directly or indirectly; no one was to be arrested without a judicial order. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech were safeguarded within the bounds of public “order” and “law”. Private property was given the status of an inviolable right, which could be taken by the state only if an indemnity were given and offices and positions were opened to all citizens.

It is in this historical period that the concept, mostly based on political concerns, of Civil and Political Rights was defined. These rights, also known as first generation rights, recognise the existence of certain things that the all-powerful rulers should not be able to do and that people should have some influence over the policies affecting them. The two central ideas were those of personal liberty, and of protecting the individuals against violations by the State. They serve negatively to protect the individual from excesses of the State.

The steps forward made since the time of Cyrus were impressive, yet still many of these concepts, when originally translated into policies, excluded women, people of color, and members of certain social, religious, economic, and political groups.

Prime examples to overcome this situation are represented by the efforts in the 19th and early 20th centuries to prohibit the slave trade and to limit the horrors of war.

Significant is the adoption of the first three Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions expressing the deep concern of the public opinion to promote a respect of a basic level of Human dignity of individuals even in wartime and posing the foundations of  modern International Humanitarian Law. The concerns over the protection of certain minority groups, which were raised by the League of Nations at the end of the First World War, and the establishment of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to oversee treaties protecting workers with respect to their rights, including their health and safety, manifest  the increased positive attitude toward the recognition of the importance of Human Rights as we know them today.

The time for a revolution and a deep progress in the protection and promotion of human dignity was ripe. Eventually, it took the catalyst of World War II to propel human rights onto the global stage and into the global conscience. The unprecedented cruelties perpetrated during the conflict and outside it such as the extermination by Nazi Germany of over six million Jews, Sinti and Romani (gypsies), homosexuals, and persons with disabilities horrified the world. The idea of human rights thus emerged even stronger than ever after World War II. The Trials held in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II, introduced the rather new concepts of "crimes against peace," and "crimes against humanity."

Governments then committed themselves to establishing the United Nations, with the primary goal of bolstering international peace and preventing conflict. People wanted to ensure that never again would anyone be unjustly denied life, freedom, food, shelter, and nationality.

It was the 1945 and the fifty founding members of the United Nations stated, in the preamble of the UN Charter, that they were determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained in order to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

In the first article of the same Charter, Member states pledged “to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

A strong political commitment was set and to advance on these goals, a Commission on Human Rights was immediately established and charged with the task of drafting a document spelling out the meaning of the fundamental rights and freedoms proclaimed in the Charter. Three years later, The Commission, guided by Eleanor Roosevelt’s forceful leadership, captured the world’s attention, drafting the 30 articles that now make up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration was presented to the world, acting for the first time as a recognized and internationally accepted charter, whose first article states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

The UDHR, although not legally binding, introduces the concept that how a government treats its own citizens is now a matter of legitimate international concern, and not simply a domestic issue, and that  the exercise of a person's rights and freedoms may be subject to certain limitations, which must be determined by law, solely for the purpose of securing due recognition of the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

Its Preamble eloquently asserts that: recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. It restates the already identified civil and political rights and introduces the so-called second generation rights, fundamentally economic, social, and cultural in nature, furthermore claiming that all rights are interdependent and indivisible.

The message was clear and powerful, the realization of one Right is linked to the realization of the others. All human rights are indivisible, whether they are civil and political rights, such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education, or collective rights, such as the rights to development and self-determination, are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Similarly, the deprivation of one right hampers the improvement and enjoyment of the others.

The influence of the UDHR has been substantial and together with the  International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights it constitutes the so defined “International Bill of Rights” that lays down the obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from specific acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.

Its principles, by now, have been incorporated into the Constitutions of almost all the UN members and has achieved the status of customary international law regarded as a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.

Human Rights have continued to evolve and, since its foundation, the United Nations has adopted more than 20 principal treaties including conventions to prevent and prohibit specific abuses like torture and genocide and to protect particularly vulnerable populations, such as refugees (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951), women ( Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women , 1979), and children ( Convention on the Rights of the Child , 1989).

A multitude of other treaties and documents have clarified and further developed some of the basic concepts that were laid down in the original UDHR, thus envisaging new generations of rights. These additions have been a result of a number of factors, partly as a response to progressively modified ideas about human dignity, and partly as a result of new emerging threats and opportunities. As far as for the specific new category of rights, that have been proposed as third generation rights, these have been the consequence of a deeper understanding of the different types of obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing the first and second-generation rights. The idea at the base of the third generation of rights is that of solidarity and collective rights of society or peoples, such as the right to sustainable development, to peace or to a healthy environment.

In much of the world, conditions such as extreme poverty, war, ecological and natural disasters have meant that there has been only very limited progress in respect of human rights. For that reason, people have felt necessary the recognition of a new category of human rights.

Following emerging threats and opportunities, the so-called 4th generation rights, linked to the recent fast technology development, represent the last discussed frontier of Human Rights. A fusion of material, biological and digital technologies raises existential questions about what it means to be human and how to protect human dignity. Digitalization and “datification” of almost all human activities create new opportunities of development but also new possibilities for human rights violations.

Fortunately, it is nowadays clear that what human dignity means, how to protect and promote it, is a concept that, albeit rooted within the principles of the UDHR, is in constant evolution in accordance with the new necessities.  There is a need for a comprehensive response and whilst the international community is still discussing about 4th generation rights it is my belief that there will be room, in the future, for the fifth and, hopefully, for further generations of Human Rights.

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, was the result of the experience of the Second World War. With the end of that war, and the creation of the United Nations, the international community vowed to never again allow atrocities like those of that conflict to happen again. World leaders decided to complement the UN Charter with a road map to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere. The document they considered, and which would later become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was taken up at the first session of the General Assembly in 1946. 

The Assembly reviewed this draft Declaration on Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms and transmitted it to the Economic and Social Council "for reference to the Commission on Human Rights for consideration . . . in its preparation of an international bill of rights." The Commission, at its first session early in 1947, authorized its members to formulate what it termed "a preliminary draft International Bill of Human Rights". Later the work was taken over by a formal drafting committee, consisting of members of the Commission from eight States, selected with due regard for geographical distribution.

Eleanor Roosevelt of the US, at left, shaking hands with Vladimir M. Koretsky of the USSR, at right.

The Commission on Human Rights was made up of 18 members from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the UDHR drafting committee. With her were René Cassin of France, who composed the first draft of the Declaration, the Committee Rapporteur Charles Malik of Lebanon, Vice-Chairman Peng Chung Chang of China, and John Humphrey of Canada, Director of the UN’s Human Rights Division, who prepared the Declaration’s blueprint. But Mrs. Roosevelt was recognized as the driving force for the Declaration’s adoption.

The Commission met for the first time in 1947. In her memoirs, Eleanor Roosevelt recalled:

Dr. Chang was a pluralist and held forth in charming fashion on the proposition that there is more than one kind of ultimate reality.  The Declaration, he said, should reflect more than simply Western ideas and Dr. Humphrey would have to be eclectic in his approach.  His remark, though addressed to Dr. Humphrey, was really directed at Dr. Malik, from whom it drew a prompt retort as he expounded at some length the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.  Dr. Humphrey joined enthusiastically in the discussion, and I remember that at one point Dr. Chang suggested that the Secretariat might well spend a few months studying the fundamentals of Confucianism!

The final draft by Cassin was handed to the Commission on Human Rights, which was being held in Geneva. The draft declaration sent out to all UN member States for comments became known as the Geneva draft.

The first draft of the Declaration was proposed in September 1948 with over 50 Member States participating in the final drafting. By its resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948, the General Assembly, meeting in Paris, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with eight nations abstaining from the vote but none dissenting. Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, member of the drafting sub-Committee, wrote:

I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality.  In the Great Hall…there was an atmosphere of genuine solidarity and brotherhood among men and women from all latitudes, the like of which I have not seen again in any international setting.

The entire text of the UDHR was composed in less than two years. At a time when the world was divided into Eastern and Western blocks, finding a common ground on what should make the essence of the document proved to be a colossal task.

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Women Who Shaped the Declaration

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, seated at right speaking with Mrs. Hansa Mehta who stands next to her.

Women delegates from various countries played a key role in getting women’s rights included in the Declaration. Hansa Mehta of India (standing above Eleanor Roosevelt) is widely credited with changing the phrase "All men are born free and equal" to "All human beings are born free and equal" in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Human Rights History and Approaches Essay

Introduction, the history of human rights, the most significant developments, human rights-based approaches, ethical norms, reference list.

Although the very concept of human rights has been in the air almost since ancient Europe, its active development and application began only recently. Having started active development during the Renaissance, medieval thinkers began to return to the idea of endowing a person with unconditional rights. In modern times, civilization has come to the idea that human rights are a set of principles that recognize human freedom to make choices about our lives and develop the human potential of everyone (Australian Human Rights Commission n. d.). In their simplicity, these rights provide a person with the opportunity to live without aggression, oppression, and persecution.

Hotbeds of what will become human rights in the future have emerged in virtually all major and advanced civilizations of antiquity since the Bronze Age. In those days, many cultures and civilizations, such as ancient Sumer, Babylon, and China, created laws that gave all citizens and residents of these states certain rights. This was often necessary for the competent allocation of resources and the development of the economy by raising the standard of living (Australian Human Rights Commission n. d.). In the future, human rights will already become the legal basis for entire systems of justice, as happened in ancient Athens and then in the Roman Republic. Further development of the concept of human rights was reflected in the European Middle Ages, the eras of renaissance and enlightenment, and the idea of empowering all people, based on the concept of “natural law.”

Later, these ideas influenced the political and social thinking of the people of the future. In 1215, the English aristocracy forced the king to sign the Magna Carta. This document, among other things, gave all people the right to court and so on. Then there was the French Revolution, which endowed all French citizens, regardless of class, with almost equal rights, the American Declaration of Independence was signed, and many other events. All this became the reason for the UN, formed after the Second World War, to declare the Universal declaration of human rights in 1948 (Amnesty International UK 2017). The document became the foundation for the existing and developing human rights institution in our time. Later in the United Kingdom, the Equity Act of 2010 was passed, combining several pre-existing anti-discrimination laws (Government Equalities Office and Equality and Human Rights Commission n.d.). Now, regardless of the development of other institutions and forms of government, people worldwide know that they are endowed with universal rights.

Several legal and social acts are illustrative examples of the application of human rights. The first thing to consider is the Scotland Children Act 1995, a strategy to modernize the family justice system. The law itself defines parental rights and obligations to children, as well as the obligations and powers of state bodies to support children and their families. It is about creating registers of child welfare curators, promoting the opinion of young children, protecting victims of domestic violence, and encouraging the socialization of children within the family (Scottish Government 2018). Also relevant in the context of this law is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is about ensuring the safety and happiness of children. Based on this convention, every child has the right to life, protection, and education regardless of race, religion, or ability (Save the Children n. d.). These initiatives are the clearest manifestation of the phenomenon of human rights, the essence of which is to ensure a dignified, just, and safe life for every person.

There are at least two human rights approaches that are applicable in early learning and childcare. The first of them is PANEL which exists for constructing proper policies that are based on human rights laws (Australian Human Rights Commission 2021). The approach includes several fundamental principles that determine its nature and work. First, the participation principle means that people have equal access to decision-making in the actions influencing their rights. For example, when a government decides to implement a policy, it should consider the opinion of its citizens, who should understand and accept the decision. Next, the accountability principle guarantees the ability to assess the implementation of human rights. For instance, a country should employ administrators who know the law and can discern its breaking. Furthermore, the non-discrimination and equality principle declares no exceptions to human rights. As such, no human can treat someone violently based on their nationality or race. Finally, the empowerment and legality principles control the personal and legal representations of human rights (Australian Human Rights Commission 2021). Thus, the laws of a country should guarantee an ability to claim injustice to its people.

In turn, the FAIR approach serves for the same reason as the PANEL one, except for the emphasis on action in the case of FAIR. The four foundational principles of it aim at gaining facts, analyzing rights, identifying responsibilities, and reviewing actions (Scottish Human Rights Commission n. d.). The importance of using the two approaches in early learning and childcare is defined by the fact that children are humans and, therefore, have rights that should be respected.

An example of the application of the principle is in the Act of participation. As such, this act guarantees that all children can freely communicate their thoughts, desires, and dreams and be heard by adults (UNICEF United Kingdom n. d.). In this act, a FAIR principle of fact accessing is applicable. As such, schools provide an opportunity for children to express their thoughts according to their previous experience, not limiting them in the use of material for their expressions.

Based on human rights, modern ethical norms of the public and professional spheres are also formed—one of the clearest examples of this phenomenon in medicine. For example, in medicine, there is a practice of using medical students to care for patients. From the point of view of practice, this is very effective because it contributes to the effective teaching of students in the practice of interacting with patients. However, this practice is a problem because patients must choose whether to take care of the students or fully competent professionals. The Code of Medical Ethics Conclusion 9.2.1 states that “all physicians have a responsibility to ensure that patients are aware that medical students can participate in their treatment and be able to refuse treatment from students” (The Journal of the American Medical Association n. d.). The very existence of such a code of ethics and its attitude to this problem is a consequence of developing the concept of human rights.

To summarize, humanity has traveled thousands of years to finally formulate the essence of the universal rights of every person. The result is that people in the world have gained more freedom, justice, and equality. Human rights have made it possible to regulate and more effectively apply various professional spheres in society, as well as determine each person’s place in them. One should not forget that all these benefits in total give each person the right and the opportunity to be happy, living in a society without oppression, hatred, respect, and respect for oneself and other representatives of society.

Australian Human Rights Commission n. d., An Introduction to Human Rights , Web.

Australian Human Rights Commission 2021, Human rights-based approaches , Web.

Amnesty International UK 2017, What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? , Web.

Government Equalities Office and Equality and Human Rights Commission n. d., Equality Act 2010: guidance , Web.

The Journal of the American Medical Association n. d., Medical Student Involvement in Patient Care , Web.

Save the Children n. d., UN Convention on the Rights of the Child , Web.

Scottish Government 2018, Review of Part 1 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 and creation of a family justice modernization strategy , Web.

Scottish Human Rights Commission n. d., The FAIR approach – putting a human rights-based approach into practice , Web.

UNICEF United Kingdom n. d., The right to participation , Web.

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IvyPanda. (2022, November 27). Human Rights History and Approaches.

"Human Rights History and Approaches." IvyPanda , 27 Nov. 2022,

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IvyPanda . "Human Rights History and Approaches." November 27, 2022.

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Human Rights: Historical and Conceptual Evolution

Introduction, historical evolution of human rights, the effects of human rights declaration evolution, weaknesses of the human rights declaration, current position of the human rights declaration.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is considered to be of great historical value. It was officially adopted in 1948 by United Nations General Assembly. The declaration enunciates special fundamental rights of every person being of major interest in the process of circumcision ethics study. The evolution of Human Rights provided the opportunities to evaluate the importance and influential role of the declaration. The rights covered by the declaration are devoted to privacy, freedom from torture and personal security and freedom from various unusual and cruel treatments. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is recognized as a standard of achievement for a great number of nations; every organ of the community and every individual taking into account this declaration strive to promote complete respect for these freedoms and rights on the international level securing their effective and universal recognition. The evolution of the human rights has shown its practical value for people’s rights safeguarding.

The values and ideas of human rights refer to ancient religious cultures and beliefs throughout the world. In the period of World War II the Four principle freedoms were adopted:

  • Freedom of assembly;
  • Speech freedom;
  • Freedom from any want;
  • Freedom from possible fear.

The idea of freedom establishment appeared to be the background for the development of fundamental human rights. The basic principle of the declaration lied in the following:

“… to provide universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction at to race, sex, language or religion.” (United Nations Charter, art. p. 56).

The day of declaration adoption was 10 December of 1948 with 48 votes in favor by the General Assembly.

The structure of the Universal Declaration was prepared and introduced by Rene Cassin in its second draft. It should be stressed that structure was under the impact of Code Napoleon containing preamble and basic principles in the introduction. The first and the second articles are considered to be the background blocks covering brotherhood, equality, liberty and dignity (Walker, 2008).

Deepening into the structure of the Declaration it should be stressed that its main body formed four basic columns from the very beginning of declaration development.

  • The first part covers the individual’s rights (people’s protection from slavery and complete equal right to life);
  • The second part provides the identification of individuals’ rights in political and civil society;
  • The third aspect of the declaration structure deals with political, spiritual and public freedoms;
  • The forth columns highlights economic, cultural and social rights and their equality among all the human beings. (Williams, 2007)

Critical analysis of the Human Rights Declaration showed that the idea of original human rights was based on the depth of human nature; thus, the fact that everyone is to be respected lied in the background of humanity. It should be noted that roots of Human Rights Declaration focused on some religious aspects ancient beliefs. As a result a set of coordinated formal freedoms and rights was organized and developed on the international level. (Schabas, 1998)

The governments were aimed at the promotion of declaration making people to secure the effectiveness and universal character of the Declaration. Roosevelt stated that UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) could be considered more as a formal declaration rather than a kind of treaty; Eleanor explained it by the fact that this document would have influenced the world population in the way the Americans are influenced by the US Declaration of Independence. This statement appeared to be correct and it was proved through the years of Declaration existence. The power of this Declaration is considered to be more significant than that of some national constitutions. Since 1948 the UDHR acts as the background for the international treaties organizations, establishment of national laws being aimed at human rights protection of sub national, national and regional characters (Morsink, 1999).

It is important to stress that the Declaration was merely created for the purpose of freedom identification; at the definite moment people happened to require the clarification of such notions as “human rights” and “fundamental freedom”. As a result the Universal Declaration appeared to be the UN constitutive document. According to the views of major international lawyers, the Declaration is the principle part of international law being a significant and powerful tool for providing moral and diplomatic pressure to the governments violating any of the declaration articles.

At the international conference of the United Nations which was devoted to the human rights the declaration was proclaimed as the document that “ constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community to all persons”.

The Universal Declaration has appeared to serve the background for two basic human rights covenants:

  • Civil and Political Rights International Covenant;
  • Economic, Cultural and Social Rights International Covenant;

The Declaration principles used to be elaborated in various treaties of international character. The value of the Declaration is considered to be magnificent for the constitutional courts, academics, advocates, governments and just individuals appealing to its basic principles for the purpose of their rights protection.

The significant role of the Declaration and its place in the sphere of human rights protection was internationally recognized worldwide. Thus, famous diplomat and philosopher, Charles Malik recognized this declaration as: “an international document of the first order of importance” (Malik, the Third Committee of the UN Assembly).

According to the statement of Eleanor Roosevelt being the chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission, the universal declaration: “…may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere” (Roosevelt, UN Assembly).

In 1995 the official speech of Pope John Paul II proclaimed the results of the Universal Declaration functioning in the global society calling it as “…one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time” (John Paul II, official speech).

At the conference of 2003 Marcello Spatafora on behalf of European Union stated general position of the declaration in current times: “ it placed human rights at the center of the framework of principles and obligations shaping relations with the international community” (Spatafora, EU Conference, 2003).

Thus, the strengths of the declaration appeared to be the principle tool in safeguarding of world human rights.

Despite all the privileges and advantages of the declaration this document happened to experience criticism on the part of Islamic countries. Such states as Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Iran managed to disagree with effectiveness and power of the human rights document. It was stated that the set of freedoms failed to cover religious and cultural context of Islamic states. The representatives of Islamic culture criticized the positions of the declaration; it was explained by the fact that the document highlighted Judeo-Christian traditions which cannot be supported by Muslims, only in case of Islamic law trespassing. As a way of alternative the representatives of Islamic culture created the document stating the rights and freedom to a dignified life taking into account Islamic Shari’ah. Such position was taken during the Islamic Conference in 2000 being devoted to critical issues of the Universal Declaration (Nurser, 2005).

The criticism of the human rights declaration touched the aspect of medial care. According to the Article 25, the medial care should be free; the representatives of conservatism and libertarians never supported this position. Thus, Andrew Bissell stated as to the article: “Health Care doesn’t simply grow on trees; …No one will want to enter the medical profession when the reward for years of careful schooling and study is not fair remuneration…” (Bissell, 2005).

The next critical issue of the declaration effects sticks to the aspect of education. According to the Article 26, the education is to be compulsory for everyone. According to the philosophical study this position in the declaration provided violation aimed at human right to follow personal interests. Thus, John Holt stated that: “ A person’s freedom of learning is a part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech.” (Holt, Escape from Childhood).

It should be noted that the word “compulsory” can be observed in the declaration only once being devoted to the education issue.

2008 is considered to be a significant year for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It should be stated that this year it is celebrating its 60 th birthday. This day is important due to its honor to the human rights established many years ago.

“ On this Human Rights Day, it is my hope that we will act on our collective responsibility to uphold the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration” (Ban Ki-moon, 2008).

On the day of holiday celebration the role of the human rights introduction was deeply analyzed. It was stated that the Declaration made only a slight print on contemporary life. The increased level of inequality and poverty are the main grounds to consider it in such a way. Some critics stated that proclamation of the human rights is only a noise being completely empty. The main question asked was devoted to the function of the human rights. What are they for? Modern world experiences race discrimination in some countries; the selfishness of rich people and class inequality contradict the positions of the declaration. The time of economic despair and political instability are to be avoided in accordance with the human rights issues (Gearty, 2008).

The analysis of the human rights position in modern world has shown that declaration issues adopted in 1948 are only a slight shadow in current times. Historical evolution of the UDHR influenced its position in the global society of the world and its perception. Steps and principles of the declaration are based on human morality and mentality. Beliefs and freedoms adopted 60 years ago are considered to be a significant step for the population of that time, but nowadays the declaration is just a shadow of the past (Human Rights Day. Dignity and Justice for All of Us, 2008).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights appeared to be a fundamental document for the world population. It covered all aspects of social, economical and political life of human beings highlighting the real sense of the words “freedom” and “rights”. Due to the declaration people managed to feel their opportunities and rights in the life. Taking into account the way passed by the human rights document it is important to stress that it underwent certain evolution in its perception by the population.

Nevertheless the UDHR is considered to be a significant step in the history of world civilization having brought major changes to all the nations and states.

Gearty, Conor. 2008. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the next sixty years. Open Democracy. NY.

Human Rights Day. Dignity and Justice for All of Us. 2008. Web.

Morsink, Johannes. 1999. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting and Intent. Philadelphia Press.

Nurser, John. 2005. For all People and all Nations. Christian Churches and Human Rights. Geneva Publication.

Roosevelt, Eleanor. N.d. Address to the United Nations General Assembly . 

Schabas, William. 1998. Canada and the Adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. McGill Law Journal.

The United Nations and Human Rights. 2006. Department of Public Information, United Nations, New York.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights . 1948. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

Walker, John. 2008. The UNHR . Preamble. The General Assembly. 

Williams, Paul. 2007. The International Bill of Human Rights. Edited by Jimmy Carter. HR Book Edition.

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