The concept of Human Rights has a long history of over two thousand years and its origin can be traced to the moral philosophies of Aristotle and the Stoic philosophers. The theory of human rights, however, has broadened in concept over the centuries and its contemporary form reflects the development in human thought over time. In the present day world, Human Rights aim to secure for individuals the necessary economic, political, and social conditions required to lead a minimally good life. Such an expanded definition of Human Rights is now incorporated in the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (1948) and other international human rights treaties and declarations, which have acquired the status of an International Bill of Rights.
While there are many philosophical and legal arguments against the concept of a universal set of standards for human rights, I firmly believe that without such basic rules of behavior, human beings cannot rise above the level of an instinctive animal nor realize their full potential for development. It is, therefore, the responsibility of each and every individual to support human rights and put moral pressure on national and international institutions to safeguard such rights. In this essay I shall present arguments in support of human rights and refute some of the major objections against it, besides giving a brief account of its historical origins and development.
Historical Origins and Development
The theory of human rights is based on the doctrine of "moral universalism" first put forward by Aristotle and Stoics. In "Nicomachean Ethics," Aristotle presents his argument in support of the existence of "a natural moral order" and opines that such a "natural" order should be the basis for all truly rational systems of justice.
This concept of moral universalism implies that morality is not dependant on social and historical conditions and applies to all human beings regardless of place and time, and forms the basis of human rights. Roman Stoic philosophers such as Cicero and Seneca, also supported 'moral universalism' and argued that all moral laws originated in the rational will of God and the authority of such moral law transcended all local legal codes. (Fagan, para on "Historical Origins ... ") Christianity, which emerged later, maintained the belief of a universal moral code in the ensuing centuries.
The doctrine of "natural law" and "natural rights" -- a concept that most closely approximates the contemporary idea of human rights emerged during the Age of Enlightenment during the 17th and 18th century Europe. The most influential advocate of such a doctrine was the 17th century English philosopher John Locke. In Two Treatises of Government (1688) he propounded the theory that individuals possess natural rights that are independent of the political recognition granted to them by the state.
John Locke had proposed that the 'natural rights' of human beings emanated from 'natural law,' which, in turn, originated from a divine being -- the God. Subsequent philosophers, most notably the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested a more 'secular' and philosophically acceptable source of natural rights. Kant proposed that human beings, as autonomous and rational beings, universally formulate moral principals, and as such 'natural rights' originate from human reason rather than from the divine will of a super being. (Ibid.)
Three Generations of Human Rights and its Current Concept
The initial concept of 'human rights,' put forward by John Locke and adopted by the Libertarian democracies of the time, was concerned only with the natural rights of individuals relating to their 'life, liberty, and property.' Documents such as the U.S. "Declaration of Independence" (1776) and the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens" (1789) reflect this 'first generation' of human rights, which are mostly concerned with protecting the individual from the excesses of the state. The 'second generation' human rights, relating mainly to the socio-economic rights, rights to welfare, education, and leisure, began to be recognized as fundamental rights of individuals at a later stage. Still later (in the second half of the 20th century) "third generation" human rights such as a right to national self-determination, a clean environment, and the rights of indigenous minorities have also been recognized as basic human rights. The first and second generation rights have been incorporated in the 1948's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and other international human rights treaties such as the "European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights" (1953) and the "International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights" (1966). The third generation rights are only partly covered in the above-mentioned documents. Watchdog non-governmental organizations such as the "Human Rights Watch" and the "Amnesty International" keep a vigilant eye on the human rights records of nation-states in order to put moral pressure on governments to adhere to the basic human rights principles.
Objections to Human Rights & Their Rebuttal
The idea of a universal set of human rights principles is not accepted by everyone without reservation. Some people have philosophical objections to the idea, while others (mainly governments of sovereign nations) consider it an intrusion on their sovereignty. Still others oppose the universal application of human rights on religious grounds.
Let us look at some of these objections in greater detail in order to determine whether there is any substance to them.
The Moral Relativists' Argument:
The "moral relativists" challenge the basic concept of moral universalism on which human rights are based. They argue that universally valid moral truths do not exist and view morality as a strictly social and historical phenomenon. Hence, it is the contention of some relativists that the human rights principles valid for the Western societies may be completely contrary to the cultural and social norms of a society in, say, Africa. Specifically, the relativists point out that most of the human rights doctrines cater to the "morally individualist" societies and cultures (such as that of the West) and ignore the "communal moral" character of many Asian and African societies.
While the universalism v. relativism may be an inconclusive debate, it is interesting to note that such arguments against human rights are invariably put forward by the ruling elite or governments that have a vested interest in denying human rights to the common citizens. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that are mostly organized at the grass-roots level have enthusiastically embraced the human rights doctrine globally and give the lie to the theory of human rights being contrary to the cultural and social norms of some societies.
Do Human Rights Intrude on State Sovereignty? Another major objection against the human rights doctrine is that they intrude on state sovereignty of the nation states. This is a rather untenable argument in the present age of globalization. If we accept the argument that all nation state governments are free to treat their own citizens in whatever way they please, then we would be left with no justification for opposing the internal policies of even tyrants such as Adolf Hitler. After all, the Nazi government was the legal authority in the country and any concern on the atrocious human rights record of the Nazis could be dismissed as illegal encroachment on its sovereignty.
Citing "state sovereignty" as a license to do as one pleases with the country's own citizens is, therefore, not a convincing argument. The only valid concern in this regard is how human rights violations by a sovereign country should be tackled? Whether unilateral military action (such as the one taken by the U.S. administration against Iraq) is an appropriate response? Or whether, economic sanctions, which tend to exacerbate the human rights situation is the right response?
Some people oppose certain human rights principles on religious grounds. For example, Article 18 of "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights," adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief ... " Some Muslim countries and scholars have contested this article of the declaration by asserting that no Muslim has the right to abandon Islam. This point-of-view, however, is far from unanimous among the Muslims. The more moderate scholars of Islam point to the passage in the Koran
, which says "Let there be no compulsion in religion." Several Islamic jurists contend that Islam was the first to recognize basic human rights and almost 14 centuries ago it set up guarantees and safeguards that have only recently been incorporated in universal declarations of human rights. This implies that there is no basic conflict between human rights and the principles of major religions of the world, including Islam. It is only when some people attempt to become too literal in their interpretations of religious thought when some apparent conflict appears.
What are the Consequences of Disregarding Human Rights?
Recent developments in Darfur (a Western region of Sudan) and Abu Gharib (Iraq) clearly illustrate the unfortunate consequences of disregarding Human Rights. In Darfur, we have witnessed massive ethnic cleansing and organized violence against civilians by the Sudanese government forces and government-backed…