Human Rights in History
The denial of, and consequent fight for, human rights
shaped the lives of
many people throughout history.
Leonardo da Vinci Vitruvian Man c. 1492
Photo: Luc Viatour. See
Luc's site at Lucnix.be
What Exactly Are Human
:: The Broad Definition
Just as there is no guide-book to
life, there is no official definition of human rights.
Probably everyone agrees that human rights are
non-transferrable (inalienable) rights all human beings possess from birth.
So far so good.
The precise definition and
interpretation thereof is the tricky part.
:: The Exact Definition
How far is an individual or
a country allowed to go to defend themselves?
How crowded does a prison cell have to
be to violate human rights?
Is violence justified when used to stop violence? Or
should violence be met with compassion to break the vicious
Do collective rights trump individual
rights? If so, under what circumstances and to what extend?
How can one
person's freedom of religion and another
one's freedom of speech coexist? And what
about the freedom of religion of two people
that are of different faith?
Secularism and Freedom
further down on this page)
What role do
human rights play when it comes to abortion
Where does the right to privacy end
and the right to information begin?
This illustrates how the specific definition of human rights is subject to individual interpretation.
Individual interpretation, in turn, is of course
shaped by culture, religion, and moral values.
:: Juristic Definitions of Human Rights
Legal minds have defined the science of human
. . . a particular branch of the social sciences, the object of which is to study human relations
in the light of human dignity while determining those rights and faculties which
are necessary as a whole for the full development of each human being's
Rene Cassin at
the International Conference on the
Science of Human Rights, March 5 and 6,
1971, at Nice, France
The science of human rights concerns
the individual person living within a state who, being accused of an offense or being the victim of a
situation of war, benefits from the protection of the law, due to either the intercession of the
national judge or that of international organizations (such as the organs of the
European Convention on Human Rights), and whose rights, particularly
the right to equality, are harmonized with the requirements of
Karel Vasak in
his Foreword of
The International Dimensions of Human
Rights, 1982 (UNESCO)
:: The Categories
Human rights are typically grouped
1. civil and political rights
2. economic, social, and cultural
The Timeline: Human
Rights in World History
:: Human Rights in Ancient Times
The vast majority of religions and
philosophies agree that doing good to other human beings is
the decent thing to do. Tips and pearls of wisdom on the
subject of compassion and charity exist in abundance.
Even those teachings that aren't willing to commit as
far endorse at the very least non-injury.
who lived 428-470 BC, declared happiness the goal, and virtue
the means by which to achieve it.
Aristotle, who lived 384–322 BC, noted that there
was a difference between what was "just by nature" and what was
"just by law."
According to the Confucian
(Mengzi), who lived 371-289 BC, it was the ruler's
responsibility to provide conditions that would
allow for the material and spiritual welfare of the people.
Here, Mencius promotes accountability
in his conversation with King Hui of Liang:
there any difference between killing a man
with a stick and with a sword?"
king said, "There is no difference!"
there any difference between doing it
with a sword and with the style of
Mengzi online via the
Chinese Text Project
Confucian philosopher Xunzi (Hsün-tzu), who
lived around 300-230 BC, might have been the
first person who put "individual rights" (human
consequence of individual life without
mutual aid is poverty;
the consequence of corporate life without
individual rights is strife.
means anxiety; strife spells misfortune.
order to relieve anxiety and eradicate
nothing is as effective as the institution
of corporate life
based on a clear recognition of individual
Birthright of Man, 1969,
which is a selection of texts prepared
under the direction of Jeanne Hersch.
can be found on page 303 under Social Justice.
You can read it also in
French, Spanish, and Italian.
Magna Carta of 1215 held
King John of
England accountable to the law. The Magna Carta was
signed by King John himself, but under duress, which led to the
First Barons' War.
:: The Inquisition and the Slave Trade
— Massive Violations of Human Rights
In 1184, Pope
Lucius III laid the groundwork for the
Inquisition. The following 500
years were especially dark for heretics and those tagged as such.
Trade prospered over a period of roughly 400 years, from the 16th to the 19th century.
These are just two examples of human
rights violations that illustrate the magnitude of men's staggering capability to do evil. Heaven didn't
seem fit to interfere but, at the bare minimum, they must have been
at least a little bit upset.
After the so-called dark ages, and
continuing on our swift ride through world history, we soon
encounter some members of the human
race that began to ponder . . .
Subject of Human Rights Back to the Consciousness
the Middle Ages (5th
- 14th century*) and entered the
- 17th century*). The Renaissance brought with it
humanitas, or humanism, with its top priority: human virtue;
thus picking it up where Plato had left it off.
The Renaissance was followed by the
of Reason, (17th - 18th century*), during which enlightened
people contemplated the various facets of human dignity,
religious tolerance, the advantages of
humanism over barbarism, being civilized
over being savage, and liberty over oppression.
= time span much simplified
And speaking of religion...
Here is a man who argued
law, meaning that there are certain human rights in
existence even if the gods are not. Or, in his words,
have been saying would have a degree of
even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the
utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men
are of no concern to Him.
11, De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the
Law of War and Peace)
Hugo Grotius, 1625
Right along those lines:
In all ages of the world, priests have been enemies of
Essays, Moral and Political
David Hume, 1741
Here are more
remarks that illustrate how human rights
developed during the Enlightenment into something worthy of protection:
Democratic and aristocratic states are not
in their own nature free. Political liberty
is to be found only in moderate governments;
and even in these it is not always found. It
is there only when there is no abuse of
power. But constant experience shows us that
every man invested with power is apt to
abuse it, and to carry his authority as far
as it will go. Is it not strange, though
true, to say that virtue itself has need of
To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from
the very nature of things that power should
be a check to power. A government may be so
constituted, as no man shall be compelled to
do things to which the law does not oblige
him, nor forced to abstain from things which
the law permits.
Montesquieu, who lived 1689-1755
From his De l'esprit des lois (The Spirit of Laws), 1748
Man is born free, and
everywhere he is in chains.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who lived
From Du Contrat Social (The Social Contract), 1762
The law of
intolerance is therefore absurd and barbarous; it is the law
of the tiger - and yet more horrible, since tigers only rend
each other's flesh for food whilst we have exterminated one
another for a paragraph.
Voltaire, who lived 1694-1778
From his Treatise on Tolerance, 1763
Birthright of Man, 1969,
In her book
The Friends of Voltaire,
1906, English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, aka S. G.
Tallentyre, summed up Voltaire's attitude to free speech as
I disapprove of what you
say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Back to the Enlightenment:
Act always in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in
your own person or in that of anyone else, at the same time
as an end, and never simply as a means.
Immanuel Kant, who lived
Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Groundwork of
the Metaphysics of Morals), 1785
Birthright of Man, 1969,
Human Rights Become Law
Enlightened thought became a guiding
principle in law making:
these truths to be self-evident, that all
men are created equal, that they are endowed
by their Creator with certain unalienable
Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty
and the pursuit of Happiness.
U.S. Declaration of Independence,
Men are born and remain free
and equal in rights.
French Declaration of the Rights of
Man and of the Citizen, 1789
Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting
the free exercise thereof; or abridging the
freedom of speech, or of the press; or the
right of the people peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the Government for a redress
U.S. Bill of Rights, 1791
It remained the task of bridging the
gap between law
and common practice.
Trailblazers Defending Human Rights
The Enlightenment, or
of Reason, (17th - 18th century*), was followed by
the Industrial Revolution (18th - 19th century*), and
an entire new set of topics arrived on the discussion board of human rights.
= time span much simplified
Here are some of the
trailblazers who fought for having that discussion in the
Frances D. Gage,
who lived 1808-1884
Charles Sumner, who
who lived 1818-1895
Elizabeth Cady Stanton's
Declaration of Sentiments, delivered at the
Seneca Falls Convention, New York — July 19-20, 1848.
See also her
Rights of Married Women Address
Ain't I a Woman speech,
delivered at the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio - May 28,
The 20th century introduced a bouquet
of atrocities and upsetting characters, such as,
World War I and
World War II
who lived 1889–1945
who lived 1925-1998
who lived 1915-2006
annihilation of six million Jews, aka the
:: International Human Rights
Trying to counter-balance these major setbacks
in the history of human rights, people of the World united and,
consequently, human rights became international
Franklin D. Roosevelt contributed to this advancement with his State of the
Union address on January 6, 1941, also known as his
The Four Freedoms speech. The four freedoms were freedom
of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from
Geneva Conventions (1864-1949
and 1977) were treaties concerning the effects of war on soldiers and
In October 1945, the
was set up, according to its charter "to reaffirm faith in
fundamental human rights."
Further, in November 1945, the United
Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
was formed. The idea was,
That a peace based exclusively upon the
political and economic arrangements of
governments would not be a peace which could
secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere
support of the peoples of the world, and
that the peace must therefore be founded, if
it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and
moral solidarity of mankind.
Constitution of UNESCO was
signed on November 16, 1945.
The Universal Declaration of Human
Rights of 1948 introduced its pledge by stating 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
Here is the full text of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principles of which
Robert F. Kennedy said
represent the "principles which embody the collective hopes of men
of good will around the globe."
(From Bobby Kennedy's
Day of Affirmation Address,
delivered at the University of Cape Town at Cape Town, South Africa
— June 6, 1966.)
However, these efforts were not always
a straight success. The Bosnian Genocide
1992–1995, and the
Genocide of 1994 are two examples.
The Defense of
Human Rights — An Ongoing Project
The need to defend human rights
doesn't seem to decrease. And people are willing to step up
to the plate. Here are a few recent highlights:
Mahatma Gandhi, who lived 1869-1948,
promoted nonviolent fight to effect social change.
14th Dalai Lama, born in 1935, became well known
for endorsing the rights of the people of Tibet. He also
Eleanor Roosevelt's speech
The Struggle for Human Rights,
delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris, France - September 28, 1948.
Martin Luther King's
I have a Dream speech
August 28, 1963.
Ballot or Bullet speech,
delivered at the Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio — April 3,
The Carter Center was founded in 1982 by
former U.S. President and First Lady
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter
Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech,
delivered at Oslo, Norway, on December 10, 1993.
In June 1994, the Organization of
American States (OAS) gathered in Belem do Para, Brazil, at their
Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of
Violence Against Women. Here you can read the
Convention of Belem.
Aung San Suu Kyi's opening
Keynote Address at
the NGO Forum on Women, delivered via video at Huairou,
China — August 31, 1995.
Hillary Clinton's speech
Women's Rights Are Human Rights,
delivered at the Fourth U.N. World Conference on Women, Beijing,
China - September 5, 1995.
Pope Benedict XVI's
Address to the United
Nations General Assembly, delivered at New York, N.Y. -
April 18, 2008.
Aung San Suu Kyi's
Nobel Lecture, delivered at Oslo,
Norway — June 16, 2012.
On June 24, 2012, the New York Times
published Jimmy Carter's op-ed in which he described in detail how the United States
was currently violating at least ten of the thirty articles of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Here you can read Carter's
A Cruel and Unusual Record.
Global Human Rights
The UN has many subsidiary bodies and programs,
from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict
which seeks to end the use of child
This is the
Office of the High Commissioner for
Human Rights. And
here you can see how human
rights treaties are being monitored.
International Committee of the Red
Cross was established in 1863 to provide assistance to wounded soldiers on the
battlefield. In Muslim countries, the counterpart is the Red
Amnesty International (AI)
was created in 1961.
Institute of Human Rights (IIHR)
was founded in 1969 by René Cassin, as an association working for
the promotion and the protection of human rights through research
and training of professionals.
Doctors without Borders, or
French: Médecins Sans Frontières, was founded.
Human Rights Watch (HRW)
was established in 1978 to scrupulously investigate abuses, expose
the facts widely, and pressure those with power to respect rights
and secure justice.
International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ)
was founded in 2001 to assist
societies grappling with the immense challenge of securing justice
and accountability in the wake of mass human rights violations.
Let's wrap it up with a quote
from an expert on human rights:
But I know, somehow, that only
when it is dark enough,
can you see the stars.
Martin Luther King's
I've Seen the Promised Land