A brief introduction to and history of human rights

Sources: Andrew Fagan “Human Rights” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [excerpt] and Britannica 2002 DVD Edition; World Book 2002 [a secondary, not a primary, source but you may cite it as useful background information.]
  • Human rights have been defined as 'basic moral guarantees that people in all countries and cultures allegedly have simply because they are people. Calling these guarantees “rights” suggests that they attach to particular individuals who can invoke them, that they are of high priority, and that compliance with them is mandatory rather than discretionary. As James Nickel states, human rights aim to secure for individuals the necessary conditions for leading a minimally good life.
  • Human rights rest upon moral universalism and the belief in the existence of a truly universal moral community comprising all human beings. Moral universalism posits the existence of rationally identifiable trans-cultural and trans-historical moral truths. The origins of moral universalism within Europe are typically associated with the writings of Aristotle and the Stoics. Thus, in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle unambiguously expounds an argument in support of the existence of a natural moral order. This natural order ought to provide the basis for all truly rational systems of justice. An appeal to the natural order provides a set of comprehensive and potentially universal criteria for evaluating the legitimacy of actual 'man-made' legal systems. In distinguishing between 'natural justice' and 'legal justice', Aristotle writes, 'the natural is that which has the same validity everywhere and does not depend upon acceptance.' (Nicomachean Ethics, 189)

    Efforts to establish basic rights began hundreds or even thousands of years ago. One important early document in these efforts was Magna Carta of 1215, which granted rights to individuals and ensured that England's king would be subject to the law. Magna Carta became a model for later documents, such as the United States Constitution's Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791. The Bill of Rights suggested the idea of universal rights, but in practice, it was not truly universal. For example, the bill excluded slaves, and thus it failed to address human rights as we now understand them. By the early 1900's, however, people around the world had begun to form international communities, such as the International Labour Organization in 1919, to work for basic rights all over the world.

  • It was during the period from the Renaissance until the 17th century that the beliefs and practices of society so changed that the idea of human (or natural) rights could take hold as a general social need and reality. The writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius, as well as Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights of 1628, and the English Bill of Rights, all reflected the view that human beings are endowed with certain eternal and inalienable rights.

  • [Another important philosopher root is] 17th. Century philosopher John Locke and, in particular, the argument he outlined in his Two Treatises of Government (1688). At the center of Locke's argument is the claim that individuals possess natural rights, independently of the political recognition granted them by the state. These natural rights are possessed independently of, and prior to, the formation of any political community. Locke argued that natural rights flowed from natural law. Natural law originated from God. Accurately discerning the will of God provided us with an ultimately authoritative moral code.

  • The modernist conception of natural law as meaning natural rights was elaborated in the 17th and 18th centuries by such writers as René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Benedict de Spinoza, and Francis Bacon. Particularly to be noted are the writings of the English philosopher John Locke, who was perhaps the most important natural-law theorist of modern times, and the Philosophes, including Denis Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

  • The struggle against political absolutism in the late 18th and the 19th centuries further advanced the concept of human rights. Thomas Jefferson and the marquis de Lafayette gave eloquence to the plain prose of the previous century, and freedoms were specified in a variety of historic documents such as The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) and the Bill of Rights (1791) of the Constitution of the United States (1787).

  • Similarly, the concept of individual rights continued to resound throughout the 19th. Century exemplified by Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women and other political movements to extend political suffrage to sections of society who had been denied the possession of political and civil rights.

  • The idea that natural law is the foundation for human rights came under attack during the late 18th century by such men as conservatives Edmund Burke and David Hume, as well as by Jeremy Bentham, a founder and leading proponent of utilitarianism. This assault continued into the early 20th century. Such writers as John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Karl von Savigny, Sir Henry Maine, John Austin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein sought other justifications for, and definitions of, those rights. But efforts to assert and protect the rights of humanity continued to multiply in one form or another—the abolition of slavery, lab our laws, popular education, trade unionism, universal suffrage—during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the notion of human rights had achieved universal acceptance, at least in principle, by the second half of the 20th century, following the fall of Nazi Germany.

  • As moral principles and as a moral doctrine, human rights are considered to be universally valid. However, moral universalism has long been subject to criticism by so-called moral relativists. Moral relativists argue that universally valid moral truths do not exist. For moral relativists, there is simply no such thing as a universally valid moral doctrine. Relativists view morality as a social and historical phenomenon. Is the relativist genuinely asking us to recognize and respect the integrity of Nazi Germany, or any other similarly repressive regime? There can be little doubt that, as it stands, relativism is incompatible with human rights. On the face of it, this would appear to lend argumentative weight to the universalist support of human rights. After all, one may speculate as to the willingness of any relativist to actually forego their possession of human rights if and when the social surroundings demanded it. Similarly, relativist arguments are typically presented by members of the political elites within those countries whose systematic oppression of their peoples has attracted the attention of advocates of human rights. The exponential growth of grass-roots human rights organizations across many countries in the world whose cultures are alleged to be incompatible with the implementation of human rights, raises serious questions as to the validity and integrity of such 'indigenous' relativists. At its worst, the doctrine of moral relativism may be being deployed in an attempt to illegitimately justify oppressive political systems.

  • James Nickel (1987: 8-10) identifies three specific ways in which the contemporary concept of human rights differs from, and goes beyond that of natural rights. First, he argues that contemporary human rights are far more concerned to view the realization of equality as requiring positive action by the state, via the provision of welfare assistance, for example. Advocates of natural rights, he argues, were far more inclined to view equality in formalistic terms, as principally requiring the state to refrain from 'interfering' in individuals' lives. Second, he argues that, whereas advocates of natural rights tended to conceive of human beings as mere individuals, veritable 'islands unto themselves', advocates of contemporary human rights are far more willing to recognize the importance of family and community in individuals' lives. Third, Nickel views contemporary human rights as being far more 'internationalist' in scope and orientation than was typically found within arguments in support of natural rights. That is to say, the protection and promotion of human rights are increasingly seen as requiring international action and concern.

  • Human rights are better thought of as both moral rights and legal rights. Human rights originate as moral rights and their legitimacy is necessarily dependent upon the legitimacy of the concept of moral rights. A principal aim of advocates of human rights is for these rights to receive universal legal recognition. One can identify and distinguish between five different categories of substantive human rights. These are as follows: rights to life; rights to freedom; rights to political participation; rights to the protection of the rule of law; rights to fundamental social, economic, and cultural goods.

  • Human rights are said to be possessed equally, by everyone. A conventional corollary of this claim is that everyone has a duty to protect and promote the human rights of everyone else. However, in practice, the onus for securing human rights typically falls upon national governments and international, inter-governmental bodies.

  • Human rights have a long historical heritage. The principal philosophical foundation of human rights is a belief in the existence of a form of justice valid for all peoples, everywhere. In this form, the contemporary doctrine of human rights has come to occupy center stage in geo-political affairs. The language of human rights is understood and utilized by many peoples in very diverse circumstances. Human rights have become indispensable to the contemporary understanding of how human beings should be treated, by one another and by national and international political bodies. Human rights are best thought of as potential moral guarantees for each human being to lead a minimally good life. The extent to which this aspiration has not been realized represents a gross failure by the contemporary world to institute a morally compelling order based upon human rights.
  • Modern ideas of human rights began to take shape following World War II (1939-1945) and the Holocaust, the systematic murder of millions of Jews and others by Germany's Nazi government. The Holocaust forced world leaders to reconsider the traditional notion of national sovereignty, which holds that a nation's government is the ultimate legal authority within that country. In the Nuremberg Trials, which began in 1945, the war's victors charged Nazi leaders with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other offenses. These trials showed that international standards could outweigh national sovereignty when human rights were violated on a massive scale.

    This general agreement that all human beings are entitled to some basic rights marked the birth of the international and universal recognition of human rights. In the charter establishing the United Nations, all members were pledged to achieve “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion,” and the UN has continued to affirm its commitment to human rights, particularly in such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). International concern for human rights has also been evident outside of the United Nations. For example, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which met in Helsinki in 1973–75, produced the Helsinki Final Act. The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which first met in 1950, eventually produced the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Social Charter; the Ninth Pan-American Conference of 1948 adopted the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man; and the Organization of African Unity in 1981 adopted the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

  • There are also a number of private groups involved in human-rights advocacy. One of the best-known international human-rights agencies is Amnesty International (founded in 1961), an organization dedicated to publicizing violations of human rights, especially freedoms of speech and religion and the right of political dissent.