The history of human rights isn’t that simple. The concept has been around for eons, really, but inalienable rights are only a recent development. Just how recent? Well, the legal recognition of human rights within the international community wasn’t until the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Even still, the moral principles that constitute our fundamental rights are rich in history. Global leaders and government officials in 1948 didn’t just wake up one day thinking, “Wow, the last six years sucked for humanity, we need to do something about it.” No, the steps towards securing mankind’s fundamental freedoms have been growing over generations.
Everything grows from something. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Violence begets violence; hate begets hate; and toughness begets a greater toughness.” What is put out into the world comes back to us tenfold. That being said, why not have love beget love; empathy beget empathy; and respect begets greater respect?
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The History of Human Rights: What are Human Rights?
The history of human rights is a complex and evolving narrative that spans centuries and is deeply intertwined with the development of societies, cultures, and philosophical thought.
Human rights are the collective rights of everyone. Every member of the “human family” is entitled to several fundamental freedoms and rights. This includes – but is not limited to – multiple civil and political rights, economic, social, and cultural rights, and environmental rights. In short, human rights can best be described as the most basic rights of mankind.
The United Nations describes human rights as the “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.” Therefore, human rights are both universal and undeniable. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. In the eyes of the United Nations, you have rights that are worth protecting and enforcing.
Everybody has human rights: you, your grandma, and your weird neighbor included. It is the preservation and implementation of these rights on such a massive, international scale when things get tricky.
Types of Human Rights
There are a handful of human rights. There are five “themes” of human rights that the rest fall beneath.
Types of human rights include…
- Economic rights
- Social rights
- Political rights
- Civil rights
- Cultural rights
These five themes of human rights encapsulate the collective rights of humanity. Though they may not be much to look at at a glance, there is a lot to them. Each theme can be broken down into countless categories and sub-categories. As the years have gone on, the list of human rights only grew (albeit slowly).
Violations of Human Rights
There is not a person on this earth that can be denied their rights as a human being. Right? Unfortunately, that is where things can get complicated.
It is painful to admit, but human rights are a new thing. They may have entertained the thoughts of rulers of ages past, or been explored through the eyes of philosophers many years ago; however, the fundamental rights of mankind have only been established within the last hundred years.
You would think it would be a no-brainer to treat folk with inherent dignity. However, when push comes to shove (or in times of strife), it is easy to lose sight of who we are and what we stand for. War, economic collapses, and ecological and natural disasters can all become a slippery slope into human rights abuses.
As human beings, we are born with rights that supersede state, country, or creed. When these rights are violated – oftentimes in the name of governance, extremism, and war – it is up to everyone to hold offenders accountable. Notably, the government is charged with holding itself accountable as well which…can get complicated if the government is acting in its own self-interest. That is where the international community comes into play.
A History of Human Rights: 539 BC to the 21st-Century
Human rights aren’t new, but their legality is. Such is especially true for universal human rights, which were only adopted in 1948 after one of history’s bloodiest wars. Since then, only limited progress has been made toward expanding, respecting, and enforcing human rights.
Much of the time, the evolution of human rights can be described by generations. The first-generation rights (civil and political rights) are theorized to have begun in the 17th- and 18th centuries. Pretty much, people should have a say in what policies will affect them. These rights also offer protections against violations of state.
Second-generation rights focus more on the social, economic, and cultural rights of individuals. How people live and work together became a hot topic during the Industrial Revolution and the burgeoning working class. On the other hand, third-generation rights are known as solidarity rights. These would include the right to a healthy environment and the right to peace among other things.
539 BCE – Cyrus the Great and Basic Freedoms
Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River. Cyrus was also a phenomenal military strategist; all of this, however, was not necessarily what made Cyrus…well, great.
What defined the reign of Cyrus more than anything was his treatment of the lands he conquered. He respected the cultures, religions, and customs of the many, many lands he inducted into his growing empire. There was no forced assimilation, no denouncing of local religions, and an emphasis was placed on tolerance. Today, Cyrus is viewed as a benevolent leader who championed religious minorities in conquered regions.
Part of why Cyrus has such a sparkling interpretation is the Cyrus Cylinder. The cylinder acts as a record of Cyrus’ 539 BCE conquest of ancient Babylon. Apparently, upon arriving in Babylon, Cyrus the Great declared himself chosen by Marduk, the chief city god. Doing such made him positively stand out compared to the king he had deposed.
The king, Nabonidus, turned out to be in the middle of an (unpopular) religious reformation with the moon god Sîn at its helm. Despite such reformations taking place successfully in the past, Marduk was a popular god amongst the ancient Babylonians. Cyrus’ open worship of the revered deity had him quickly gain traction with common and high-born Babylonians alike.
Later interpretations of the Cyrus Cylinder suggest that Cyrus freed Babylonian slaves, although slavery was continued throughout Achaemeniad rulership. The historicity of this event is debated, though supported in the Book of Ezra which states that Cyrus ended the Babylonian exile. Whatever the true interpretation of the Cyrus Cylinder, Cyrus is still credited with being the first to establish basic freedoms.
1215 – The Magna Carta and Rule of Law
Ancient leaders afforded their subjects certain rights. Though no international bill, the running of ancient empires and societies – and what they viewed as human rights – is nothing to scoff at. Many rulers (good ones at least) did acknowledge the legal obligation that came with leading. That being said, Magna Carta, anyone?
The signing of the Magna Carta is one of the most famous stories in history. After all, it was the first significant record of the rule of law. The Magna Carta (also called “The Great Charter”) establishes that the monarch and their government are not above the law. While it didn’t necessarily propel human rights forward, the Magna Carta was a big deal.
It wasn’t peasants that forced King John’s hand, but rather feudal lords – barons, in this case – that threatened civil war. They were angry about the rise in taxes to fund bitterly unsuccessful wars in France. The tax spike was viewed as a clear exploitation of power by the king. Therefore, to avoid royal infringement on their finances, the barons grouped up and made a heavy-handed threat to the monarch.
Though the Magna Carta was signed, King John did later reach out to the Pope to negate the document’s legal status. You know, looking for any loophole out of a binding agreement…just as someone looking to exploit their power would. Anyways, doing so led to England’s First Barons’ War, which lasted two years.
1625 – Hugo Grotius and International Law
Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) is considered the father of international law. So, you’ve probably guessed it: the consensus is that Grotius laid the foundations of modern international law. He was a Dutch juror, a poet, and a massive fan of Greek and Roman philosophy.
In the groundbreaking novel On the Laws of War and Peace (1625), Grotius boldly attempts to find a middle ground between natural law and the laws of nations. Accordingly, the most-favored idealist view is counteractive, but absolute realism is also unacceptable. Wars will happen, but the standard of warfare is determined by international law; likewise, the treatment of minorities is up to review from the international stage. Grotian tradition “views international policies as taking place within an international society” according to A. Claire Cutler in Review of International Studies.
Grotius, therefore, establishes that there are certain human rights that are unwaveringly fundamental to human beings. These rights are then vital to understanding human nature. Then, international laws somewhat based on human nature are, to a degree, completely valid.
Much of Grotian tradition and the themes that Grotius had discussed in his lifetime became blueprints for modern international human rights law. He vaunted non-intervention policies but agreed that another country could step in against tyrannical rule on behalf of the citizens. This would be because of human dignity rather than any personal gain.
1689 – English Bill of Rights
The English Bill of Rights is best known as the document that establishes Parliamentary privilege. However, there is a lot more to this piece of parchment than just that! The English Bill of Rights stated that there could be no taxation without representation (in Parliament), freedom from government interference, the right to petition, and equal treatment in the court system. Furthermore, other human rights were granted to civilians, such as no cruel and unusual punishment and the right to free speech.
If that sounds familiar to all of you Americans reading, it’s because it is.
The whole “no taxation without representation” theme was a major point of contention within the British-American colonies leading up to the Revolutionary War. British colonies did not have appropriate representatives in Parliament. Agents, sure, but not sufficient representatives that could challenge the British majority. Additionally, when drafting the United States Bill of Rights, government officials definitely looked to the English Bill of Rights for some inspiration.
As it turns out, the populace wasn’t too keen on giving the a-OK to a fledgling government with no guarantee of personal liberty. They rightfully didn’t want British monarchy 2.0, so not many Anti-Federalists (nay to national governments) were willing to ratify the Constitution. This left Federalists (yay to the national government) in a sticky situation. The Federalists added the Bill of Rights to make the Constitution more appealing to the opposition.
1789 – The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the French Revolution
The French Revolution was a major upheaval of the feudal system in France. It was a crazy time to be alive and the French Revolution left a lot of European monarchies wiping their brow. The American Revolution – a major source of inspiration for French peasantry – ended a mere 6 years before. And, unlike their American counterparts, the French Revolution was thrice as bloody.
When examining the French Revolution, it is crucial to consider what events led up to it. Again, everything grows from something. Right off the bat, some members of society were granted more rights than others. The Estate System effectively shot down an individual’s right to self-determination and grossly limited their economic rights.
Speaking of economic rights, the economy sucked. The two higher Estates (the First and Second) relied on the taxation of the Third Estate for their livelihood. The Third Estate, composed of the working class, could not afford necessities.
If the bread riots in Paris were bad, then the famine rampant throughout the countryside was horrible. Also, absolutism – the idea that the monarchy has complete, unchallenged control over an entire country – didn’t help at all.
So, the people of France began turning to Enlightenment ideals. The Age of Enlightenment, which emphasized the value of individual liberty and religious tolerance, inspired the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The Declaration was drafted by American Revolution veteran Marquis de Lafayette and clergyman Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes, both of whom ironically belonged to the Second and First Estates.
Article I of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen reads as follows: “Human Beings are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good.” Such an open declaration of human rights ignited a spark in many Frenchmen, women, and children who had felt disenfranchised by their system of government.
1791 – The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights
The end of the Revolutionary War in the United States was a trying period in the nation’s history. No one was quite certain what they wanted when they wiped their hands clean of British rule; they just knew they didn’t want that. Thus, emerged the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.
The Federalists wanted a national government whereas Anti-Federalists preferred smaller, self-governing states. There was a massive and very real fear that a big government could lead the new country down the same hole they just dug themselves out of.
The United States Constitution was initially introduced to outline the systems of government that the Articles of Confederation (1777) lacked. It was introduced to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Other Convention topics included state representation in Congress, presidential powers, and the slave trade. The main issue with the Constitution is that it focused only on governmental powers and branches, but not the rights of the people.
Which is important when you are trying to assert federal control over them. As the Magna Carta taught us (which the French Bourbon dynasty could have learned from) the government is not above the law. The Federalists needed to think of something to reel the Anti-Feds to their side.
This is where the Bill of Rights comes in. Ten amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution, which collectively became known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments, which guarantee the “certain unalienable Rights” of the Declaration of Independence are still a topic of debate today. While 27 more amendments have been added to the original ratification in 1791, only the first 10 are known as the Bill of Rights.
1919 – Peace Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations
The events of World War I (WWI) shocked the international community. It was the Great War: the “war to end all wars.” Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.
World War I was a period of rapid advancements in warfare. Tanks, chemical weaponry, flamethrowers, and machine guns were all developed in the shadow of the very first world war. Furthermore, violations of human rights were plentiful.
In various countries – the United States included – opposition to the war could lead to jail time. Civilians were court-martialed and sent to military prisons for speech deemed “disloyal.” In Canada, the War Measures Act was introduced, giving the federal government power to suspend all rights of citizens. Meanwhile, 100,000 civilians in France and Belgium were detained by German forces, only to be sent against their will as forced labor in Germany.
So, at the end of the war, drafting a peace treaty was only one of the many hurdles that nations had to contend with. The biggest issue is that no one could agree on how to treat Germany and other Central powers. What ended up happening was a significant stripping of territory, a reduction of military forces, and a reparations bill that was astronomical. The peace that came with the Treaty of Versailles was fragile at best.
From the treaty came the League of Nations, founded by the 28th U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson. In all, 63 countries were a part of the League: this was a majority of sovereign nations in 1920. The League of Nations was the first international congregation of nations and was developed to help achieve international peace.
At some point, Japan had introduced a clause to the treaty that – if approved – would’ve established racial equality within the League of Nations. The U.S. and a number of British dominions rejected the amendment. Despite this fumble, the League of Nations managed to develop organizations that did positively propel human rights forward.
International Labor Organization
The International Labor Organization (ILO) was founded by the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. It became a mainstay in the later United Nations. As it stands, the International Labor Organization safeguards social and economic rights by setting international labor standards.
Much of the foundation of the ILO is based on 19th-century social and labor movements. These movements brought international attention to the plights of workers. After World War I, the beliefs of these movements became revitalized as the demand for social justice and a higher standard of living for the working classes emerged.
In the wake of WWI, the International Labor Organization proved especially helpful for developing countries. Among these, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Poland all were considered separated from Russian claims per the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The benefit of the ILO would again be proved in developing countries after WWII. Then, numerous countries were freed from colonial rule including India, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
Protection of Minorities
Humanitarian conditions were not a driving principle sought to be upheld by the League of Nations. Instead, the League was formed to maintain the status quo following the Allied victory in World War I (Justifications of Minority Protections in International Law, 1997). That being said, the legitimate international concern of another world war happening did provide substantial reasoning to address some amount of human rights.
The administrative branch of the League of Nations, the International Secretariat, included a Minorities Section in the early years. The Minorities Section dealt with the protections of minorities in relevant nations, particularly those newly formed in Eastern Europe.
Before the formation of the Secretariat and its Minorities Section, the rights of minorities that found themselves aloft in war-torn Eastern Europe were ambiguous at best. It was the Minorities Section that developed “a procedural and bureaucratic structure that untangled the League’s…mandate…guaranteeing the rights of some twenty-five million racial, religious, and linguistic minorities” as stated by Thomas Smejkal in his thesis, “Protection in Practice: The Minorities Section of the League of Nations Secretariat, 1919-1934.” For a time, the Section was somewhat successful at addressing inequalities experienced by minorities. It was not until later that the overall weaknesses of the League – such as lack of representation – proved to be an issue in the face of World War II.
With World War II came numerous human rights abuses, with those hit hardest being certain minority groups in Eastern Europe. Without significant world powers (the United States, Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy, Japan, and Spain) it became increasingly difficult to ensure personal liberty for minorities.
1945 – Post-WWII and the United Nations
World War II, as with the First World War, saw a slew of human rights violations. To be fair, most wars – major and minor – are breeding grounds for such infringements. Supposed “gentlemen wars” are a thing of the past, if not nearer to pure fantasy.
Furthermore, a new horror was realized in the later months of 1945. The United States developed and dropped two atomic bombs in the largely civilian-populated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The bombing led to the end of the Pacific Theater, with legal experts and scholars still debating whether or not the dual bombings were war crimes.
Though the threat of weapons of mass destruction was real, the United Nations didn’t immediately act against them. It was not until 1968 that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was signed. Even later still was the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was signed, which didn’t happen until 2017. Currently, the use of weapons of mass destruction is considered a violation of human rights.
After WWII, there was new hope for achieving international peace. The League of Nations, now null and void, was rebranded as the United Nations. In fact, the Charter of the United Nations was signed while World War II was still raging on and the development of the UN began back in 1943 during the pivotal Tehran Conference. During this time, the League of Nations wasn’t completely obsolete, but it was just barely functioning.
The United Nations expanded significantly on human rights and humanitarian laws. Like its predecessor, its primary goal is bolstering international peace.
The United Nations Charter
The United Nations Charter is the founding document of the U.N., signed in 1945. The Charter itself is considered to be an international treaty, legally binding involving countries to oblige by any laws passed. Since its initial signing in 1945, the United Nations Charter has been amended three times.
Commission of Human Rights
One of the more significant creations post-WWII is the Commission of Human Rights. Emerging in 1946, the Commission is responsible for protecting fundamental freedoms. There are numerous themes that the Commission of Human Rights handles.
Anything from the right to self-determination to indigenous issues is discussed by the Commission. Moreover, they look into both human rights violations worldwide and in specific countries. It is the Commission of Human Rights that primarily sets standards for human rights for the international community.
An example is the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Commission opens the declaration with the 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.” Right off the bat, the Commission acknowledges that there are certain fundamental human rights that must be recognized. The inclusion of civil and political rights, and economic, social, and cultural rights, among others, have been later added per the Commission.
1948 – Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a significant landmark in the history of human rights. It has acted as a model document for several “domestic constitutions, laws, regulations, and policies” according to Hurst Hannum in “The UDHR in National and International Law” (Health and Human Rights, 1998). Despite this, the UDHR is not a legally binding document; at least not in whole. However, the Declaration has been incorporated into most constitutions of the nations belonging to the UN.
All things considered, the UDHR is a customary international law. Everyone understands, acknowledges, and respects the Declaration (at least those 193 states and countries within the United Nations). It was drafted for bolstering international peace, after all.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights essentially acts as a guide to human rights norms. It has alternatively been referred to as the international Magna Carta since it sets a standard for how a government treats its own citizens. Thus, the treatment of a government’s citizens towards its own citizens became everybody’s business.
Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been signed, the U.N. has called out numerous governments for their citizen abuses. To be honest, the United Nations is still pointing out government infringements on human rights. One of the most historically significant times the United Nations has done this was during apartheid in South Africa.
In 1962, the U.N. condemned South Africa’s racial discrimination and bigoted laws, even going as far as calling for members to cut economic and military ties with the country. Unfortunately, not many Western countries were willing to end economic relations, even after apartheid became a crime against humanity in 1973.
1949 – International Humanitarian Law
Another international law signed in the aftermath of World War II is the International Humanitarian Law (IHL). These laws are intended to limit the effects of armed conflict and offer protections for those uninvolved in hostilities. Additionally, the IHL puts restrictions on the methods of warfare and the treatment of prisoners of war. Most – if not all – themes of the IHL had been adopted from the four Geneva Conventions of 1949.
Geneva Conventions of 1949
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 prohibit specific abuses during warfare. Three separate protocols have been added to the International Humanitarian Law, two in 1977 and one in 2005 respectively. These supplemental protocols give rights to certain minority groups in times of war.
The first of the Geneva Conventions gives protection to soldiers who are removed from the ongoing conflict. This Convention deals largely with the sick and wounded and the retention of their human rights. Meanwhile, the second Geneva Convention expands on the first, extending rights to naval combatants and ship-bound non-combatants. The second Convention also clarifies that “shipwrecked” includes those who parachute from damaged aircraft (Articles 12 and 18).
The third Geneva Convention sets standards for the treatment of prisoners of war. The Convention emphasizes that POWs are to be treated with basic human dignity. This means that degrading treatment is effectively illegal (as stated in Articles 13, 14, and 16). Also, it clarifies who is considered to be war prisoners.
Members of the armed forces, militia volunteers, and civilians in the company of armed forces are all considered to be prisoners of war. Therefore, the rights of POWs are extended to civilians under certain circumstances. Particularly those civilians involved in resistance movements and non-combatants, such as medics or chaplains, can be viewed as POWs.
The fourth Geneva Convention is an expansion to the rights and treatment of civilians in occupied land or conflict areas. Generally, civilians are to retain their civil and political rights. An example of this is addressed in Article 40, which states that civilians cannot be forced to do military-related work for occupying forces. More importantly, civilians are protected from murder, torture, or brutality; and from discrimination based on race, nationality, religion, or political opinion (Articles 13 and 32).
1954-1976 – The Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movements
More was happening in the ’60s than just the musical British Invasion. It was the middle of the Cold War, a “bloodless war,” where the United States and the Soviet Union were at each other’s throats from 1947 to 1991. So much for global peace.
The two nations got involved in a series of proxy wars, never directly assaulting the other. The most famous of these proxy wars, the Korean War (1950-1954) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975) were unpopular and viewed as “senseless” by the masses. They were only two out of upwards of 11 proxy wars.
During these terribly unpopular wars, the Civil Rights Movement was speeding up in the United States. In truth, it is impossible to argue for being a beacon of democracy if you oppress minorities in your own country. Thus, the Civil Rights era saw a boom in individuals demanding civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights were also at the forefront.
The Civil Rights Movement was largely connected to the generational trauma of Black Americans caused by the horrors of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. As of the ’60s, only very limited progress had been made from the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War. For generations, an entire demographic of the American population was denied collective rights afforded to them by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights back in 1948.
Other minority groups within (and outside of the United States) took note. Civil Rights inspired a human rights movement among Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. Additionally, Northern Ireland was inspired to lead protests against the British occupation of Northern Ireland. These protests led to the Northern Ireland Conflict (the Troubles) and the creation of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a legally binding international document drafted in 1954. However, the ICCPR was not signed until 1966. It took another decade for it to become effective in 1976.
A ton of stuff happened within those two decades that could have benefitted from such a document, but we digress. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is viewed as an international human rights law. It ensures that those belonging to mankind (i.e. human beings), have certain political rights as citizens and are treated with basic human dignity. Overall, the ICCPR asserts that people are entitled to specific personal liberties that cannot be denied by government entities.
International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
The International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) was another international bill that would have made a huge impact if put into effect the same year it was drafted. The ICESCR was developed alongside the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It was also signed and made effective in the same years as the ICCPR. As its title suggests, the ICESCR is intended to promote economic development, all while providing citizens with social and cultural rights.
Compared to other human rights laws of the past, the International Covenant of Economic Social and Cultural Rights has made significant progress for Indigenous Peoples. The identification of cultural rights specifically as human rights has positively impacted other minority groups as well, including the Roma.
Human Rights in the 21st Century
As the Commission of Human Rights states: “Human rights standards have little value if they are not implemented.” Although there have been countless standards, laws, and treaties passed by the United Nations since World War II, the international community has struggled with implementation. Furthermore, since the perception of human rights is constantly evolving, past acts – slavery, racial discrimination, and nuclear weapons to name a few – are now considered to be human rights violations. While these are all terrible acts (and always have been terrible acts) the argument arises that, at the time of practice, these were not considered to be violations. Do, then, past offenders be treated as such?
The United Nations Human Rights Council has done groundbreaking work at driving the human rights evolution. In that there is no denying. Even still, more work could be done to provide everyone across the globe with equal and inalienable rights.
The internet – a Wild West type of medium – still requires users to uphold human rights; however, it is maintaining human rights in this rapidly evolving environment that’s tricky. Likewise, environmental protections are an extension of the human right to a healthy environment. They are only recent developments.
With everything happening in the world right now, there is legitimate international concern regarding the state of human rights. Only recently has Twitter’s human rights team been cut from the company. Not to mention the humanitarian crises occurring in parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the United States.
Human rights are ever-growing, desperately attempting to keep up with changing times. What has been defined as human rights norms today may always be expanded upon tomorrow.