Human rights are “commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being. ” Human rights are thus conceived as universal and egalitarian . These rights may exist as natural rights or as legal rights, in local, regional, national, and international law. The doctrine of human rights in international practice, within international law, global and regional institutions, in the policies of states and in the activities of non-governmental organizations, has been a cornerstone of public policy around the world.
The idea of human rights states, “if the public discourse of peacetime global society can be said to have a common moral language, it is that of human rights. ” Despite this, the strong claims made by the doctrine of human rights continue to provoke considerable skepticism and debates about the content, nature and justifications of human rights to this day.
Indeed, the question of what is meant by a “right” is itself controversial and the subject of continued philosophical debate. Many of the basic ideas that animated the human rights movement developed in the aftermath of the Second World War and the atrocities of The Holocaust, culminating in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The ancient world did not possess the concept of universal human rights.
The true forerunner of human rights discourse was the concept of natural rights which appeared as part of the medieval Natural law tradition that became prominent during the Enlightenment with such philosophers as John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, and featured prominently in the political discourse of the American Revolution and the French Revolution. From this foundation, the modern human rights arguments emerged over the latter half of the twentieth century.
History of concept Although ideas of rights and liberty have existed in some form for much of human history, they do not resemble the modern conception of human rights. According to Jack Donnelly, in the ancient world, “traditional societies typically have had elaborate systems of duties… conceptions of justice, political legitimacy, and human flourishing that sought to realize human dignity, flourishing, or well-being entirely independent of human rights. These institutions and practices are alternative to, rather than different formulations of, human rights”.
The modern sense of human rights can be traced to Renaissance Europe and the Protestant Reformation, alongside the disappearance of the feudal authoritarianism and religious conservativism that dominated the Middle Ages. One theory is that human rights were developed during the early Modern period, alongside the European secularization of Judeo-Christian ethics. The most commonly held view is that concept of human rights evolved in the West, and that while earlier cultures had important ethical concepts, they generally lacked a concept of human rights.
For example, McIntyre argues there is no word for “right” in any language before 1400. and constituted a form of limited political and legal agreement to address specific political circumstances, in the case of Magna Carta later being recognised in the course of early modern debates about rights. One of the oldest records of human rights is the statute of Kalisz, giving privileges to the Jewish minority in the Kingdom of Poland such as protection from discrimination and hate speech.
The earliest conceptualization of human rights is credited to ideas about natural rights emanating from natural law. In particular, the issue of universal rights was introduced by the examination of extending rights to indigenous peoples by Spanish clerics, such as Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolome de Las Casas. In the Valladolid debate, Juan Gines de Sepulveda, who maintained an Aristotelian view of humanity as divided into classes of different worth, argued with Las Casas, who argued in favor of equal rights to freedom of slavery for all humans regardless of race or religion.
In Britain in 1683, the English Bill of Rights and the Scottish Claim of Right each made illegal a range of oppressive governmental actions. Two major revolutions occurred during the 18th century, in the United States and in France, leading to the adoption of the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen respectively, both of which established certain legal rights. Additionally, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 encoded into law a number of fundamental civil rights and civil freedoms.
These were followed by developments in philosophy of human rights by philosophers such as Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and G. W. F. Hegel during the 18th and 19th centuries. The term human rights probably came into use some time between Paine’s The Rights of Man and William Lloyd Garrison’s 1831 writings in The Liberator, in which he stated that he was trying to enlist his readers in “the great cause of human rights”. In the 19th century, human rights became a central concern over the issue of slavery.
A number of reformers, such as William Wilberforce in Britain, worked towards the abolition of slavery. This was achieved in the British Empire by the Slave Trade Act 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. In the United States, all the northern states had abolished the institution of slavery between 1777 and 1804, although southern states clung tightly to the “peculiar institution”. Conflict and debates over the expansion of slavery to new territories constituted one of the reasons for the southern states’ secession and the American Civil War.
During the reconstruction period immediately following the war, several amendments to the United States Constitution were made. These included the 13th amendment, banning slavery, the 14th amendment, assuring full citizenship and civil rights to all people born in the United States, and the 15th amendment, guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote. Many groups and movements have achieved profound social changes over the course of the 20th century in the name of human rights.
In Europe and North America, labour unions brought about laws granting workers the right to strike, establishing minimum work conditions and forbidding or regulating child labor. The women’s rights movement succeeded in gaining for many women the right to vote. National liberation movements in many countries succeeded in driving out colonial powers. One of the most influential was Mahatma Gandhi’s movement to free his native India from British rule.
Movements by long-oppressed racial and religious minorities succeeded in many parts of the world, among them the African American Civil Rights Movement, and more recent diverse identity politics movements, on behalf of women and minorities in the United States. The establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the 1864 Lieber Code and the first of the Geneva Conventions in 1864 laid the foundations of International humanitarian law, to be further developed following the two World Wars.
The World Wars, and the huge losses of life and gross abuses of human rights that took place during them, were a driving force behind the development of modern human rights instruments. The League of Nations was established in 1919 at the negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles following the end of World War I. The League’s goals included disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling disputes between countries through negotiation and diplomacy, and improving global welfare.
Enshrined in its charter was a mandate to promote many of the rights later included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the 1945 Yalta Conference, the Allied Powers agreed to create a new body to supplant the League’s role; this was to be the United Nations. The United Nations has played an important role in international human-rights law since its creation. Following the World Wars, the United Nations and its members developed much of the discourse and the bodies of law that now make up international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
Philosophy The philosophy of human rights attempts to examine the underlying basis of the concept of human rights and critically looks at its content and justification. Several theoretical approaches have been advanced to explain how and why human rights have become a part of social expectations. One of the oldest Western philosophies of human rights is that they are a product of a natural law, stemming from different philosophical or religious grounds. Other theories hold that human
Subject: Human rights,
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 12 October 2016
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