Origins of Human Rights


At what point did humanity become entitled to human rights?

Here is an introduction into the origins of human rights and the current state of affairs.

There are various viewpoints when it comes to human rights and subsequent content is not intended to persuade or dissuade any particular one.

The Spread of Human Rights

Spread of human rights

Human beings are born with the alienable and universal right to certain ‘human rights’.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates the following:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Reference:Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

So what was the genesis of human rights and until the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in December 1948, how did the idea spread?
These are some of the most important historical points.

Cyrus Cylinder

In 1879 an ancient clay cylinder was excavated in the area where Babylon, Mesopotamia existed engraved with text praising the achievements of Cyrus the Great of Achaemenid Persia.

The cylinder consists of 45 lines written in Akkadian cuneiform, with lines 1-35 owned by the British Museum and lines 36-45 owned by Yale University.

The cylinder is called the first Declaration of Human Rights and states that King Cyrus freed the slaves after he conquered Babylon and declared that they had “the right to choose their own religion”.

Magna Carta

A charter enacted in 1215 in the Kingdom of England, it is considered to be a document that marks the beginning of modern democracy, including restrictions on the king’s authority and protection of property.

Even now, more than 800 years after its enactment, the full text and four clauses below remain the most basic part of the British Constitution.

  • Confirmation of Magna Carta by King Edward (Full Text)
  • The right of the Church to be free from government interference (Article 1)
  • Freedom of the City of London and other cities and ports (Article 9)
  • No arbitrary arrest, detention, or deprivation of property unless in tandem with national law (Article 29)
  • Shields, confirmation of freedom and customs, signatures of clergy and aristocrats (Article 37)

Petition for Rights

The Petition for Rights created in June, 1628 is a constitutional document of the Kingdom of England, that provides for the protection of certain individuals against the state.

  • No arbitrary or taxation or coerced donations without consent of Congress
  • No false imprisonment or arbitrary arrest.

The Magna Carta along with The Bill of Rights (1689), are regarded as fundamental laws that constitute the British Constitution.

American Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776 and the fourth of July is still celebrated as “Independence Day” in the United States.

The contents of the Declaration of Independence consist of the three parts described below:

  • Preamble on Fundamental Rights and the Right to Revolut
  • 27 Articles on the Tyranny of the King and Grievances against the Parliament and People of Great Britain 
  • Declaration of Independence

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

Adopted by the Constitutional National Assembly on August 26, 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen consists of 17 articles, including those related to human freedom and equality, popular sovereignty, freedom of speech and separation of powers.

The basic principles of the French Revolution are referenced which consequently has a major impact on the development of the concept of individual freedom and democracy around the world.

The Declaration was also based on the Virginia Bill of Rights adopted in June 1776 and the American Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

Origin of the United Nations

Origin of the United Nations

On the topic of Human Rights, the existence of the United Nations is an unassailable entity.

The League of Nations which preceded the UN, was established in 1919 with the aim of promoting international cooperation and achieving peace and tranquility.

However, due to the lack of participation by influential nations such as the U.S., not enough influence and power was able to be exerted and prevent World War II.

After the war, the necessity of an international organization rapidly developed, therefore in 1945, one year after the draft of the UN Charter was completed, the UN was born at the United Nations Conference on International Organizations.

Concept of human rights becoming a reality

It was not until after World War II that human rights became a strong global concern.

In the aftermath of the war, many countries practiced social activism and ensuing political rhetoric placed human rights issues high on the agenda intensifying the human rights movement.

The Geneva Conventions, signed in 1864, were substantially revised in 1949, and the Fourth Convention for the Protection of Civilian Persons was adopted in the same year.

A world based on four essential freedoms

In the 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt expounded on the following four essential freedoms.

  • Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of Worship
  • Freedom from Want
  • Freedom from Fear

Consequently, action has been demanded worldwide for a human rights standard in order to protect people living within a sovereign government’s controlled territory.

United Nations Charter

On April 25, 1945, 50 governments met in San Francisco, California to begin drafting the United Nations Charter.

On June 25, 1945, the charter was accepted and the UN officially began on October 24 of the same year.

At the time of creation, the UN had 51 member states, however with the formation of South Sudan in 2011, there are 193 member states.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

Establishment of the Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR)

Human rights commissions were established as public bodies in many countries to investigate, promote, and protect human rights.

They functioned under the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations, but were abolished in June 2006 with the establishment of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

UN Member States establish the Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) to commit to the rights and freedoms of all human beings.

The Declaration, a fundamental text in the history of human and civil rights, states that individual “fundamental rights and fundamental freedoms” are inalienable and applicable to all human beings.

Consisting of 30 articles, it is today “the standard to be attained by all nations and all peoples.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted.

On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was All 193 current members of the United Nations have approved at least one of the nine treaties that are binding due to the impact of the Declaration, and the majority of countries have approved four or more.

Although the Declaration is not binding in international law, it is the basis for two binding UN human rights covenants: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 

Subsequent human rights texts

In addition to the International Covenants on Human Rights, the UN has adopted more than 20 major treaties that further elaborate on human rights.

The contents include the prohibition of certain abuses such as torture and genocide, as well as the protection of particularly vulnerable groups such as refugees, women and children.

Furthermore, in Europe, the Americas and Africa, regional documents on the protection and promotion of human rights extend the scope of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Current Human Rights Situation Around the World

Today's human rights in the world

December 10th, the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formally adopted has been designated as Human Rights Day, and through this hopes to encourage member states to raise awareness and bring attention to the cause.

Yet, in spite of the declaration occuring 70 years ago, the “right to live as a human being” is not universal.

This begs the question of what can be done to eliminate all forms of discrimination and abuse as well as achieving the protection of individuals around the world?

During the 21st century, the “century of human rights,” humanity must reckon with this herculean challenge and endeavor to find solutions.

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