Printer Frendly Version

Human Rights and Freedom from State Tyranny: History

The Origins of Human Rights

In Western thought, the moral concept of human rights is derived partly from the practices and texts of monotheistic religions (e.g., Christianity, Islam, and Judaism). One of the primary human rights in all international conventions is the right to life—a right that was first elaborated in the Old Testament: "Thou shalt not kill." Other ideas of human dignity, such as not to harm, injure, or steal, as well as precepts of justice and fairness, are elaborated in religious texts that still continue to influence the ethical beliefs of many people in the world today. Indeed, many of the founders of the United States and their supporters used religion to justify rebelling against the British king and establishing self-governance among equal citizens. In so doing, they sought to promote the universal significance of their cause.

There are many examples in the evolution of political freedom and the concept of human rights. Some examples include Cleisthenes's expansion of citizenship rights for males in ancient Athens, and Cyrus the Great's abolition of slavery in the ancient Persian Empire, as outlined on the Cyrus Cylinder (a stone artifact), a replica of which hangs at the UN headquarters in New York City as an example of an early human rights document. Even more significant was King John's signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 in England, which established the foundation for the rule of law and parliamentarism in England.

The Enlightenment, John Locke, and Natural Rights

However, the philosophical underpinnings of modern standards of human rights are much more recent. These roots are found in the Enlightenment, when concepts such as natural rights, natural law, social contracts, and the rights of man were developed. Indeed, until the Enlightenment, most political philosophers justified monarchical rule, such as Thomas Hobbes, who defended monarchical rule as a bulwark against the brutish state of man's nature without government. The English philosopher John Locke, responding to the tumultuous English civil wars of the 17th century, set out to find a new basis for legitimate government. Locke identified the foundation for government in the novel idea of the consent of the governed. In his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), Locke asserted that the essential aspect of man's state in nature is not brutishness, but his possession of natural rights endowed to him by God, namely those of "life, liberty, and estate."

While Locke was not the first to assert the existence of such natural rights nor the first to develop a political philosophy from the idea of the state of nature (this dates to the classical world), he was the first to posit that the natural rights of man were the basis for the establishment of self-government among equal citizens and that "no legitimate government exists without the consent of the governed." This concept had a great influence on the founders of the United States (Thomas Jefferson considered Locke one of the three greatest men of the millennium) and formed the basis for consensual government—republican democracy—within the American colonies and then as the United States of America.

From Locke to Kant

From the natural and inalienable rights of man posited by Locke and repeated in the Declaration of Independence arose a more expansive definition of rights in the U.S. Bill of Rights, including the rights of speech, assembly, association, religion, and due process. These are the rights that shall not be infringed by legitimate government. Already a century earlier, the English Bill of Rights had expanded the original provisions of the Magna Carta by broadening due process protections against the abuse of power by the state. The U.S. Bill of Rights further expanded the understanding of essential rights by including even more fundamental political and civil liberties.

The universal application of rights and the abolishment of social distinctions was also an idea that the 18th-century Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had put forward in his Second Discourse and The Social Contract. His ideas became the partial basis for the adoption in 1789 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which embodied the spirit of the French Revolution and was even more expansive in its guarantees of liberty than the U.S. Bill of Rights. Around the same time, the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant revisited the issue of natural rights from a different perspective, asserting that universal rights and duties were inherent from the equality and moral autonomy of individuals. Kant asserted that the human capacity for reason provided a basis for moral action. Natural rights, therefore, are not granted or given by God, but exist as human rights and are universal due to the underlying rationality of human beings. This notion established the basis for the universality of rights beyond any particular religion. Both of these philosophers had profound influences in the evolution of European political thought.

The Struggle for Abolition and Universality

Neither the American nor the French Revolutions and their philosophical foundations, however, created full political equality. Notwithstanding the universality of Locke's language, he justified slavery and the exclusion of women from politics. Many of the United States' founders, influenced by Locke's assertion of property (estate) as the principal basis for political rights, argued that property ownership (including the right to own slaves) was a fundamental right.

The struggle for the abolition of slavery, and then for the establishment of equal rights for blacks, was an essential step in establishing the universality of human rights. In 1807, the British parliament outlawed the slave trade, and in 1833 outlawed slavery within the British Empire, although these practices continued in many parts of the world. Leaders in France's First Republic outlawed slavery in 1794, although it was restored by Napoleon in 1802 and outlawed again only in 1848. Slavery was abolished in the Netherlands in 1863, the same year that Russia abolished serfdom, while Spain did not discontinue the practice until later.

One of the most significant struggles for equality was in the United States, where millions of people had been brought in chains from Africa to be used for the purposes of forced labor. Although former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Confederate states, it was not enforceable until the Union's full defeat of the Confederacy. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which definitively outlawed slavery, was adopted in 1865. In 1868, the 14th Amendment established the principles of due process and equal protection under the law, and in 1870, the 15th Amendment abolished suffrage qualifications based on race. Although these constitutional principles were largely ignored in the United States for the next hundred years, over time, they became the central pillars on which the legal foundation prohibiting discrimination has been built.

Broadsheet supporting the abolition of slavery, 1837

Unfortunately, neither slavery nor forced labor has been completely eradicated globally. One cannot ignore that human trafficking has victimized countless men, women, and children. Nevertheless, the abolition of slavery by the world's major powers in the 19th century, including in colonies, made the right not to be held in servitude one of the first universally established human rights. This right has been enshrined in Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Rise of Independence and the Descent into Totalitarianism

In Europe and in European colonies throughout the world, progress toward national independence began to gain momentum at the turn of the 20th century. This accelerated at the end of World War I, providing further impetus to the idea of equal rights and also to the connection between independence and political freedom. Many territories previously under subjugation gained independence in Europe. Anticolonial movements in many parts of the world pressed for political participation, political equality, democracy, human rights, and finally independence. Yet just as freedom movements were gaining traction in some parts of the world, Fascist, Communist, and imperial ideologies were taking hold in other parts of the world. In the 1920s and 1930s, totalitarian governments seized power in Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Fascism gained strength as General Francisco Franco took power in Spain, Japan invaded China, Italy suppressed Ethiopia, and Germany remilitarized, sweeping into the Sudetenland and Austria in 1938.

By the end of the 1930s, many signs pointed to the expansion of fascism and communism. As World War II broke out, Germany and the Soviet Union worked in alliance to divide Eastern Europe, while Hitler swept across Western Europe and Japan continued to expand in the Pacific. Although autocratic rule threatened to expand, the intervention of other powers, including Great Britain and the United States, partially reversed this trend. Beginning in August 1941, the Atlantic Charter, a joint declaration between the British and American governments, helped to establish standards to guide the postwar world, including the principles of self-determination, territorial integrity, non-aggression, disarmament, and political freedom. These elements later informed the 1945 UN Charter.

The Postwar Rubble: A Foundation for Universality

A profound determination to establish binding principles of international law to be enforced by the world community emerged from the rubble of Europe and Asia, with the aim to prevent future abuses of human rights. The principles of this new system were influenced by the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and other foundations of American and European democracy.

A profound determination to establish binding principles of international law to be enforced by the world community emerged from the rubble of Europe and Asia...

One of the earliest manifestations of the new system was the establishment of the Nuremberg and Tokyo International War Crimes Tribunals, the first of their kind. Through these trials, the Allied powers asserted the principle that state sovereignty did not protect individuals responsible for committing war crimes or crimes against humanity (see also "Rule of Law"). The two tribunals found leaders and military officers of the German and Japanese regimes guilty on both charges. The main Nuremberg tribunal sentenced 19 of 24 higher officials; "second tier" trials found 143 of 182 defendants guilty. A separate Dachau International Tribunal tried more than 1,600 German officers from concentration camps. In Tokyo, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East tried 28 of 80 class A war criminals; 25 were found guilty of war crimes, including the Nanjing massacre. The precedents set by Nuremberg and Tokyo were the basis for the international tribunals established in subsequent decades to prosecute war criminals, including the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the International Criminal Court.

The second foundation of the new international system was the UN, which was based on the principles of the Atlantic Charter. One of the UN's first tasks was the establishment in 1946 of a Commission on Human Rights, whose main purpose was to develop an International Bill of Human Rights. In 1948, after nearly 1,400 votes on specific wordings of the text, the General Assembly approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration was ratified by a vote of 48–0, with only eight states abstaining.

The Universal Declaration was the beginning of a more specific International Bill of Rights, which was divided into two documents, the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, both of which were approved for ratification in 1966 and came into force in 1976. In addition, the UN has approved other human rights documents, including the UN Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Unusual, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which entered into force in 1987, and the Universal Convention on the Rights of the Child, which entered into force in 1990. Separately, the Council of Europe's European Convention on Human Rights, which entered into force in 1953, established a court that has been the basis for the oversight of human rights practices in Europe for more than 50 years.

Another important human rights institution is the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was established in 1919 and was the only international institution to survive the demise of the League of Nations to become a fundamental part of the UN. In setting basic conditions for labor and freedom of association since 1919, the ILO has established important international instruments for human rights with universal application. During the 1940s, the ILO adopted its most important and consequential conventions: the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention (1948) and the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention (1949) (see also "Freedom of Association").

Essential Principles II


The issue of how to define human rights remains. What are the essential principles? Are they only civil and political, or are they also social, economic, and cultural? Or are they all of the above? Do some have priority over others? Are they imposed as a "Western" concept, or are they truly universal?

Part of the answer lies in an examination of how the UN Declaration on Human Rights and subsequent conventions were adopted. In January 1941, before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put forward a vision of a world in which four essential human rights would universally apply: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. His Four Freedoms are the basis of the first preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But one of the difficulties in writing the Universal Declaration and in working on the two "bill of rights" covenants was that it involved the participation of nondemocratic regimes whose aims were antithetical to human rights.

The Soviet Union, which became a U.S. ally during World War II following an attack by Nazi Germany, became a rival to the Western allies in peacetime. For the Soviet Union, this period was an opportunity to expand socialism. Within the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Soviet delegation asserted "competing" and "higher" economic and social rights against "bourgeois" civil and political rights that the democracies proposed as universal. Eleanor Roosevelt, who headed the U.S. delegation and was chairman of the commission from 1946 to 1951, spent considerable effort in contending with the head of the Soviet delegation, Andrei Vyshinsky, who had been Stalin's general prosecutor during the purge trials. Mrs. Roosevelt insisted on the preeminence of political rights within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and argued that the emphasis on alternate rights as proposed by the Soviet Union was simply a justification for totalitarian dictatorship. The discovery of atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Germany had overshadowed revelations of the Soviet Union's own terrible repression and treatment of its citizens. But eventually, the basic facts about the purges, the forced famine in Ukraine, and the Soviet government's vast system of forced labor involving millions of unjustly imprisoned people were revealed. Historians believe that millions of people were killed by the Soviet regime over 70 years in the name of "economic rights."

The discovery of atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Germany had overshadowed revelations of the Soviet Union’s own terrible repression and treatment of its citizens.

To move forward, the commission members finally agreed to a single Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to break up the proposed "International Bill of Rights" into two covenants: one on civil and political rights, and the other on economic, social, and cultural rights. Some theorists define the two categories of rights as individual and collective. Others divide human rights into the categories of nonderogable (not breakable under any conditions) and derogable (breakable under certain conditions). And still others have defined the categories of rights as first generation (individual), second generation (collective), and third generation (global).


Despite the tendency to generalize all rights, the UN system has in fact established a hierarchy in its deliberations and through the oversight of its conventions. Thus, each category of rights is valid, but the most significant for the UN is the distinction between nonderogable and derogable rights. The first refers to what governments cannot do: generally restrict rights; destroy ethnic or national groups; commit aggression or war crimes against another country; or otherwise kill, persecute, imprison, enslave, torture, or exile one's own citizens. The derogable category refers to rights that may be violated in emergency situations, such as during riots. The third major distinction is between what governments must do and what governments should do: protect national, ethnic, and cultural heritage; and ensure the rights to employment, a decent wage, a decent environment, universal education, and access to culture.

The UN Commission on Human Rights

The UN Commission on Human Rights was established in 1948 at the time of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite attempts by Soviet-bloc states to deflect attention from civil and political rights, the commission focused mostly on nonderogable rights within the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on Torture, and the Convention on Genocide. As a result, it is possible to define the most important human rights. Among these are the rights to life, freedom (not to be enslaved), humane treatment (not to be tortured or treated in a cruel, inhuman, or degrading manner); the right not to be penalized by ex post facto laws; and the right to survive as a national, ethnic, or cultural group and not be forcibly exterminated or exiled. Other essential rights include the freedoms of speech, assembly, and association, the right to due process, and the right to be free from the tyranny of the state. But these are, in fact, considered derogable rights within the UN conventions and may be temporarily restricted for reasons of public order. The extent of "derogability," however, is limited. In the 1980s, the UN Commission on Human Rights rejected the defense made by the Polish government that it was justified in using indiscriminate violence and mass imprisonments to repress Solidarity on the principle of maintaining public order.

The effectiveness of the UN commission was limited, however, in that many of its members included blatant human rights violators. Thus, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union could not be considered. In 2005, the UN decided to end the commission and create a new Human Rights Council, which began operating in 2006. However, its provisions for membership also do not exclude human rights violators (such as China, Cuba, and Libya). The United States, which encouraged the initial reform of the commission, has declined to join the council.

Lee Kuan Yew
Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights

As important as civil and political rights are within the UN system, economic, social, and cultural rights have also been given prominence through the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and through the ILO (see above). In 1993, at the World Conference on Human Rights, the right of development was also considered for the first time as a human right. Nevertheless, these other rights have not achieved the same universal standard as civil and political rights. Thus, no country has been punished with sanctions due to violations of this convention.

Despite the establishment of universal standards by the UN, many members have continued to violate human rights on a massive scale with the justification of a variety of ideologies, such as communism and certain forms of nationalism.
The Human Rights Resisters

Despite the establishment of universal standards by the UN, many members have continued to violate human rights on a massive scale with the justification of a variety of ideologies, such as communism and certain forms of nationalism. One of the most pervasive arguments has been made by Lee Kuan Yew, a former prime minister of Singapore and still influential leader, who argues that democracy and human rights are Western conceptions that do not apply in Asian states, which have different morals and cultural practices. This argument stresses that Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and China have been able to develop economically and achieve political stability. Yet the most economically well-off countries are not these, but European and American democracies, as well as Japan and South Korea, the second- and 10th-largest economies in the world. Clearly, Lee's argument is selective, meaning it is simply a justification for repressive policies and a means to avoid his international obligations under UN conventions (see the Singapore Country Study).

Other Definitions

There is not space to treat properly many other philosophical definitions of and debates over human rights (for example, moral vs. legal rights, substantive vs. nonsubstantive rights, among others). One may suffice. Andrew Fagan of the Human Rights Center at Essex University argues that human rights should be defined as "those essential elements for a human being to live a minimally good life." This utilitarian definition defines as universal what is minimally essential, but it leaves much to subjective judgment, such as what constitutes minimal. The Declaration of Independence also has similar imprecision in asserting the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but Fagan's definition is lacking the Declaration of Independence's substance in political liberty, which the above would indicate is history's most universal understanding of human rights.