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ISSUES-Human Rights
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Human Rights

The concept of human rights refers, by definition, to rights and privileges that belong to all individuals or groups of people simply as a consequence of their humanity. Human rights are founded on the axiom that all people -- regardless of the political, economic, or religious milieus in which they live -- are entitled to the benefit of at least a core set of minimal rights, freedoms, and protections. Moreover, these rights are held to be of a fundamentally essential nature, addressing basic and universal human needs and supporting human dignity. Intrinsic to personhood, human rights are not granted by government. They are possessed not only by the privileged but by every human being on earth.

The notion of a universal set of human rights had its earliest origins in ancient Greece and Rome and were rediscovered during the Renaissance. Only after the Middle Ages -- during a period when ever-growing numbers of people grew weary of religious intolerance, political and economic bondage, and the failure of rulers to meet their obligations -- would natural law -- the idea that nature itself, not the state, assures certain rights to all human beings regardless of their wealth, influence, heritage, or citizenship -- become widely associated with natural rights. The 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, the Magna Carta of 1215, the 16th-century scholar Hugo Grotius, the Petition of Right of 1628, and the English Bill of Rights of 1689 all reflected the increasingly popular view that human beings were endowed with certain eternal and inalienable rights. 

The conceptual bridge from natural law to the modern understanding of natural rights was completed by the philosophical advances of the Enlightenment, the 17th- and 18th-century Western intellectual movement that celebrated the power of reason and encouraged a belief in natural law, universal order, and the perfectibility of human affairs. Particularly important were the writings of John Locke, who argued that certain rights self-evidently belong to every human being (because these rights existed in “the state of nature” before people developed societies and civilizations). Chief among these rights, said Locke, are the rights to life, liberty (meaning freedom from arbitrary rule), and property. Locke said that human beings, upon entering civil society, in no way surrender these rights but merely enter into a “social contract” whereby the state assumes the power to enforce, but not to usurp, such rights.

This revolutionary notion of mankind’s unalienable rights laid the philosophical foundation for the American and French Revolutions. In the Declaration of Independence of 1776, Thomas Jefferson, who had studied the writings of Locke, wrote: “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.” This was the ultimate expression of a belief in universal human rights. Similarly, the marquis de Lafayette in 1789 proclaimed, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights,” and that “the aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man.”

The abolition and suffrage movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries were similarly founded on the premise of universal human rights. But not until after World War II would the term “human rights” become part of the international political lexicon. This occurred largely in response to Nazi Germany’s genocidal atrocities, which had been officially authorized by Nazi laws and decrees. The need for a universal set of human rights principles that transcended the laws and customs of any particular society now seemed apparent.

Toward that end, the 1945 Charter of the United Nations reaffirmed a “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” It stated further that the UN would seek “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples … [and] to achieve international co-operation … in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

On December 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted, without dissent, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Designed to suggest “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” rather than enforceable legal obligations, this document is a compilation of many of the more significant elements of the world’s myriad political, legal, social, economic, and cultural systems. It includes such items as: equality before the law; protection against arbitrary arrest; the right to a fair trial; freedom from ex post facto criminal laws; the right to own property; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; the right to work; the right to form and join trade unions; the right to rest and leisure; the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being; and the right to education.


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                                SEE ALSO


* Human Rights Advocates

* Human Rights Groups





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