A historical perspective on human rights
The Magna Charta (Latin for “Great Charter”), signed in England in 1215, is considered by most scholars to be the forerunner of the legal guarantees that exist today. King John of England, under strong pressure from rebellious nobles, granted all English freemen certain rights “for themselves and their heirs… forever.” At that point in history, very few people in England were considered free men, but it was a step in the right direction. Before Magna Carta, any provision for human rights was at the behest of the land’s occasional benign ruler.
More often than not, rulers were prone to oppress their people using arbitrary authority that was only challenged when others wanted to seize the same powers. Peasants’ efforts to gain more economic freedom were ruthlessly suppressed. To this day, in many countries, people who openly criticize government policy are jailed or executed.
When the American colonists began their fight for freedom, they really just wanted the same basic rights as the English that they thought had been guaranteed to them since 1689. Only after repeated attempts to assert themselves were rebuked did they proclaim independence, keeping in mind the process that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”.
The government’s purpose is to “secure these rights.” wrote Thomas Jefferson. His description of basic rights and the higher source of it contained a concept that had been around since the days of ancient Greece and Rome: that of natural law superior to any law conceived by mankind. You might expect a country founded on those basic principles to write them into its basic laws and it did. From the beginning of its history as a nation, the supreme law of the United States has been its Constitution, not the authority of any person.
Shortly after American independence was achieved, it was France’s turn. While England and its American colonies had spent two centuries experimenting with democratic government, France clung to the old ways, retaining one of the most authoritarian monarchies in the world. When the change came to France after 1789, it was sudden and violent. Although France went through several upheavals in the 1790s, until the republic was overthrown by Napoleon in the early 1800s, it maintained a “declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen,” which spelled out the equal right of individuals to determine their own government. He also affirmed some of the same guarantees granted to American citizens, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right to own property.
Fast forward to the 20th century. After World War II, a number of people attempted to set the human race once and for all on a course that would guarantee all men their Human Rights. They first founded the United Nations in an effort to create a forum where different countries could resolve their differences. The people who created the UN knew that Human Rights were an essential element of world peace and commissioned a commission under the supervision of Eleanor Roosevelt to produce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When it was ratified, it contained 30 provisions that all governments would share in common. Member nations readily subscribed to it.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the human rights movement that arose after World War II by pointing to all too frequent cases of human rights violations. There have been many triumphs when men have defended their human rights. For example, racial minorities in the United States through the leadership of Martin Luther King and others gained considerable respect for their rights, an example repeated in other parts of the world. The colonial empires that divided the world in 1948 and denied the right to self-determination to millions have been greatly reduced, beginning with India under the leadership of Gandhi.
However, the question remains: how do human rights become a reality for all? Part of the answer is that an understanding of human rights must permeate our culture. Youth for Human Rights International provides educational materials in the world’s major languages so that all peoples can have access to knowledge of their basic Human Rights, and therein lies a positive path towards a world that recognizes the dignity of all humanity.