History of Human Rights
Human Rights are a modern concept usually traced to the post-war era. The development of human rights however can be traced throughout history and across all cultures and religions. The western understanding of human rights is largely shaped by liberal ideology and therefore claiming that they are universal is highly contentious. Human rights literature varies greatly even within the liberal paradigm, but it is possible to identify basic assumptions present in all human rights discourse.
The history of liberal thought is a broad and diverse one, most associated with theorists such as Mill, Locke and Kant. These philosophers were generally concerned with normative theory, a central preoccupation being to establish the just causes of war and speculate about the possibilities of a path to peace. Today normative international theory has expanded to include issues of universal human rights, global distributive justice and democracy.
All systems of law contain various human rights whose corresponding obligations are enforced by the relevant executive and judicial bodies. Towards the second half of the twentieth century, it has also been widely accepted that there are moral human rights, whose validity is independent of any and all government bodies, to the extent that government bodies are only considered legitimate if they respect moral human rights. But what are these rights? There has been much research into the basic needs of human beings. What humans require as fundamental to their subsistence is more highly contested perhaps than one would expect. The varied terminology is indicative of the wide-ranging perspectives, with some theorists choosing to focus on basic needs, basic goods, subsistence rights, or human rights. The list of these ‘goods’ at its most elementary level includes subsistence supplies of clothing, shelter, food, drink and basic health care but often extend to freedoms of movement, education and political and economic participation. Although broadly speaking, what humans truly need is secure access to a minimally adequate share of all of these goods.
Any theory of political rights must presuppose a claim to basic liberties. A right to free speech cannot be enjoyed by someone who is under physical threat, any more than a right to employment can be enjoyed by someone who is inadequately nourished. No right can exist in the absence of a right to subsistence. Crudely put, those people who have no food or shelter are unlikely to be concerned about democracy and self-determination.
Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ sets out the distinction between negative and positive concepts of liberty and argues against the latter. Berlin insists that the fact that no-one prevents you from doing something means that you are free to do it, even if you are not actually able to do it. For Berlin, it is important that one does not confuse freedom with ‘the conditions of its exercise’ because whilst interfering to help someone to be free to do something might enhance equality or justice, one cannot claim it enhances freedom.
A 3-fold view of basic rights includes a duty to avoid depriving people of their rights, protect them from being deprived by others and finally aid those whose rights have been deprived. It is in this sense only that a genuine commitment to attaching basic rights to individuals is upheld in such a way that it provides effective as well as formal freedom to all. Individuals can only truly have rights if there are socially imposed safeguards against the violation of these rights. In other words, simply avoiding action that might deprive someone of their rights (negative liberty) is not a sufficient way of recognising those rights. For example, a state may insist that its citizens do not murder each other (i.e. they must avoid depriving them of their right to life), but unless that state has mechanisms to prevent it from happening and takes appropriate action when it does, the right to be free from being murdered would merely be a de jure and not a de facto right.
On 10 December 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It arose directly from the experiences of the Second World War and is the first globally accepted document setting out the rights to which all human beings are entitled. A total of 30 articles detail the various rights and freedoms it confers. In 1966 a further 2 covenants were added to form an International Bill of Human Rights which was later ratified into international law.
At a similar time soon after the end of the War, the Council of Europe drew up a document to establish fundamental freedoms and protect human rights. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) has several protocols and established the European Court of Human Rights. In 1998 the United Kingdom incorporated the ECHR into British Law.
Despite ongoing debate, the complex evolution of human rights has nevertheless led to a broad consensus within most legal and political systems of their intrinsic value and importance. Human rights are enshrined in international and domestic law and have undoubtedly contributed significantly to increased justice and fairness for many. The challenge today is to continue this trend so that all minority groups and victims of human rights abuses also benefit from this core ideology.