That due a person or claim a person has by virtue of being a human being. The term human rights is relatively recent. It was first used by U. S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a 1941 message to the United States’ Congress in which he propounded four freedoms- – -freedoms of speech and religion, and freedoms from want and fear. The idea of human rights is an elaboration of what used to be called natural rights or the rights of man.
These are a particularly Western idea that grew out of the medieval concern for the rights of specific groups, such as lords, barons, churchmen, kings, guilds, or towns. With the Enlightenment, philosophers began to consider whether people in general had any rights. John Locke in particular argued in his influential second Treatise of Government (1690) that all people have a natural right to freedom, equality, and property. He directly influenced the American Declaration of Independence, which almost a century later (1776) declared that “We hold 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.” During the French Revolution the French National Assembly approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), which proclaimed that the goal of political association is the preservation of the natural and inalienable rights of man, of liberty, private property, personal security, and resistance to oppression.
Such rights were further defined in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States, among them the freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. These and other rights have been included in many other constitutions and now are part of an International Bill of Rights. This comprises the 1945 United Nations Charter (Articles 1 and 55), the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN General Assembly, and the two international covenants passed by the General Assembly in 1966, one on Civil and Political Rights (CPR) and the other on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ESCR). There is now a UN Human Rights Commission that can investigate alleged violations of human rights and also receive and consider individual complaints, a momentous advance for human rights in the state-centered international system. And there is the Helsinki process that began with the Helsinki Accord of 1975, with its Basket Three on human rights and periodic meetings to assess the progress of human rights among the signatories.
In addition, human rights have been pursued in several regions. To mention just some of this activity, the Council of Europe adopted the European Convention on Human Rights and Europe now has the European Court of Human Rights and the European Commission on Human Rights. The Organization of American States also adopted the American Declaration on Human Rights, and further the American states have created the Inter-American Convention and Court on Human Rights. And due to the Organization for African Unity there is now the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights. Moreover, there have been numerous formal conferences among states and interested international government organizations on human rights, such as the World Conference on Human Rights among 183 nations in Vienna during June 1993.
Human rights have also been the concern of numerous private organizations that have sought to further define and extend human rights (such as to a clean environment), observe their implementation among governments, publicize violations by governments (as of the right against torture and summary execution), or pressure governments to cease their violations. Some of the many such organizations include the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Anti-Slavery Society, Amnesty International, the International League for Human Rights, and the International Commission of Jurists.
In sum, human rights now are very much a part of international relations and law. They define fundamental moral canons for criticizing international and national conditions and behavior. As such they are imbedded in the practice of nations and treaty prescriptions. Many states now even include human rights monitors or representatives within their foreign ministries. For example, the United States Department of State has a Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs run by an assistant secretary.
States have even generally agreed to moderate their warfare to preserve certain human rights, as precisely defined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols. And under international law there is now a fundamental core of human rights, for which there is universal jurisdiction, that no state can violate without risking mandated sanctions by the UN Security Council. Such is piracy, slavery, and genocide, for example.
Along with all this activity on human rights the number of such rights has multiplied in the last half-century. There are at least forty human rights listed in the basic UDHR, CPR, and ESCR international documents on human rights, and even these have been further extended, as for the right to development that was declared “an inalienable human right” by the UN General Assembly in 1982.
All these rights may be divided into those that concern individuals and those regarding collectivities. The former, which comprise the vast majority of rights, may be further divided into those rights of the individual against the state, usually the traditional Western rights, and those rights that make claims on the state. We can list an internationally recognized core of rights against the state from those listed in the UDHR. These include the rights
to life, liberty, security of the person, recognition as a person before the law, equal protection of the law, remedy for violation of rights, fair and public trial, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty if charged with a penal offense, leave any country and return, seek asylum from persecution, nationality, marriage, property, the secret ballot and periodic elections, freely chosen representatives, form and join trade unions, equal access to public service, and participation in cultural life;
to freedom of movement and residence, thought, conscience and religion, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, and of parents to choose their children’s education;
and to freedom from slavery or servitude, torture, degrading or inhuman treatment or punishment, arbitrary arrest or detention or exile, arbitrary interference with privacy or family or home or correspondence, deprivation of nationality, arbitrary deprivation of property, and being compelled to join an association.
Those that are claims on the state mainly comprise the right
to social security; work and free choice of employment; just and favorable conditions of work; protection against unemployment; equal pay for equal work; just and favorable remuneration (and that is supplemented if necessary); rest and leisure including periodic holidays with pay; adequate standard of living; special care and assistance for motherhood and childhood; education (including free education in elementary and fundamental stages); protection of the family, protection of one’s scientific, literary or artistic production; protection from attacks on one’s honor or reputation; and the assurance of an individual and their family an existence worthy of human dignity.
In addition there are collective rights not mentioned in the UDHR that include the right to economic development and the right to self-determination of a people. Nor does it explicitly include those rights whose violation we call war-crimes or crimes against humanity.
Obviously the list of internationalized human rights has gone far beyond the American Bill of Rights and one may well ask what defines and justifies a human right. Philosophers have argued much about this question, especially in terms of natural rights. In its original meaning, a natural right was one that commended itself to reason. It was one that reasonable people for good reasons could agree on as a right of all people. For example, the right to life and equal freedom were two of the original natural rights that presumably fit this definition. But reasonable people often disagree on fundamentals and there consequently has been various attempts to find less apparently subjective grounds for natural or human rights. Such is the appeal to utility- – -people have certain rights as they assure the happiness of the greatest number. This in fact may be the underlying justification for the acceptance of many of the rights listed above.
Another justification is that there is one core natural right that is self-evident, which is that of each individual to equal freedom, and that any other right must be a derivation or specialization of this right, as are the freedoms of religion, assembly, and speech. Otherwise what is alleged to be a natural or human right is only a human want or need, and other justification must be found to satisfy it.
Human rights may also be justified by a social contract. That is, these are the rights that in the state of nature all people, contracting to form a common government for their welfare, would impartially agree upon. A variant of this is to ask the question of all people as to what rights they would want to be guaranteed if they were completely free to recreate their society and state, while ignorant of their original position or status in it. Those rights theoretically agreed upon would then define our human rights.
Finally, there is the positivists’ justification by the behavior and practices of states. These, it is said, are what rights the world community has agreed to in their international deliberative assemblies, organizations, and treaties. And therefore they describe the multicultural, multinational consensus as to what rights human beings as human beings are entitled and may justly claim.
Besides justification there is the question whether these rights are absolute, so fundamental as rights that they should not be abridged ever. This used to be a question raised with regard to basic civil rights such as that of the freedom of religion, and the answer was that no right could be absolute. For one, in concrete situations rights may contradict each other (as when one person’s religion dictates the limitation of another’s freedom of speech). For another, even what are considered the most important rights have to be circumscribed to promote a just social order. For example, even in the United States with its Bill of Rights and Supreme Court jurists like Justice Hugo Black that have proclaimed that freedom of speech is absolute, a person is not legally free to publish a defamation of the character or reputation of a non-public person.
In any case, this question assumes that all human rights already have a legal status in international and municipal laws. Some do, such as certain political and civil rights in democratic constitutions, but internationally these and the other human rights collectively are not what may be presently demanded of a state such that their denial enables legal or international action to be taken against a government. Rather, together they are goals of state and international behavior. This is made clear in the preamble to the UDHR, for example, which proclaims the document “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society . . . shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance . . . .”
Given this status of human rights and their very large number, are some rights more basic than others such that their satisfaction takes precedence over the others? Even though the UN General Assembly resolved in 1977 that all human rights and fundamental freedoms are “inalienable and indivisible” and that all should be given “equal attention,” this question of precedence has caused much international debate on human rights. Usually the democracies and in particular Western countries have argued that civil and political rights must take precedence, that without such rights as to the ballot and freely elected representatives, and the freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, no one can be secure in any social, economic, or cultural rights. On the other side, many of the leaders of nondemocratic and less economically developed states argue that this should be the other way around, that the drive to achieve economic development, a fair standard of living, social security, and other such internationally specified rights, initially precludes certain civil and political rights. Some of these leaders even go further and argue that Western nations have pursued a kind of cultural imperialism by interfering in their internal affairs- – -as by tying economic aid to human rights progress- – -and trying to impose on them alien, inappropriate, or untimely human rights. Their human rights progress, they argue, should be judged within their own cultural context by their own “particularities.”
This debate is implicitly about the means for achieving certain social, economic, and cultural rights. Those subscribing to the Western tradition of liberal individualism see civil and political rights, what are ordinarily called liberal democratic freedoms, as not only rights in themselves, but also as means for achieving other rights, such as rights to development, social security, employment, a reasonable standard of living, and the like. That is, when a people are free under a limited constitutional government, they argue that a free social and economic market naturally follows, and this will create the wealth and diversity to automatically secure social and economic human rights, such as to development and employment. The opposing position is that government must be fully involved in the economy and society through government ownership and control and intervention to achieve social, economic, and cultural rights. The main international human rights debate then reduces to the empirical question as to the best route to social, economic, and cultural development and human happiness and satisfaction. This is then a debate along two traditional dimensions, that between democrats and authoritarians, and that between individualists and socialists.
This debate notwithstanding, the international community has established certain rights as so basic that there is virtually no nation today dissenting in public from them. In practice they are neither goals nor are they to be held in abeyance while achieving other rights. They now exist for all people. Such is the right to be free from piracy, racism, torture, summary executions, slavery, starvation, and genocide. Even the foremost proponents of cultural relativism do not argue that nations or people should be free to violate these rights. They thus form a universal core of existing international human rights.
Of major interest to students of nonviolence, many proponents of human rights have seen them as not only promoting the human dignity and worth of the person, but also as facilitating more peaceful relations among and within nations. Article 55 of the UN Charter reads: “With a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations, . . . the UN shall promote . . . universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
This view of the close relationship between peace and human rights, particularly those civil and political rights that define democracy, has received considerable research support in recent decades. Indeed, a more general empirical statement of this relationship can be made. Among those nations that most observe human rights, the democracies, war does not occur, domestic collective violence is on average the least, and there is virtually no domestic genocide or mass murder by their governments. Among those nations that least observe human rights, aggressive war is most common, internal violence is greatest, and genocide and mass murder is most pervasive, often accounting for millions of victims. Accordingly one might argue that respect for human rights in practice reduces to the respect for and nonviolent preservation of human life, the most fundamental human right of all.
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