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Human Rights and Freedom from State Tyranny: Essential Principles

"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."
American Declaration of Independence, 1776

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

When American soldiers entered Germany and helped to liberate the network of concentration camps at the end of World War II, what they discovered brought an awful clarity to the world's titanic struggle against Nazi Germany. Sergeant Ragene Farris, a medic with the 329th Medical Battalion, 104th Infantry Division, described the horrifying scenes at the Nordhausen subcamp of the Mittelbau Dora concentration camp complex:

There were others, in dark cellar rooms, lying in disease and filth, being eaten away by diarrhea and malnutrition. It was like stepping into the Dark Ages to walk into one of these cellar-cells and seek out the living; like walking into a world apart and returning to bring these shadow-men into the environment of a clean American ambulance. In one bomb crater lay about twenty bodies. We pulled three or four feebly struggling living ones from the bottom of the pile; they had been struggling for five or six days to get out but the weight of the other bodies piled on them had been too much for their starved, emaciated frames. We saw those on a bank who had been cut down by machine guns in trying to escape the fury of the guards... One Parisian [prisoner] told me that many of the 3,000 dead in the camp had been worked, beaten, and forced at top speed until they could work no longer, after which they were starved off or killed outright.

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The extent of the horrors of World War II fundamentally changed how the world perceived human rights.

Universal Standards

Prior to World War II, human rights were a matter to be determined by each state. Out of the "barbarous acts that have outraged the conscience of humankind," there emerged a new consensus to establish universal standards of conduct by states. In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first code of international standards for human rights—standards that all members of this new international institution pledged to respect.

Prior to World War II, human rights were a matter to be determined by each state.

One of the most important principles of the charter was "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [that] is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." The Universal Declaration's 30 articles enumerate a broad array of fundamental rights, including "the right to life, liberty, and security of person." Other rights include the right to emigrate and to find asylum; the rights to free expression, association, assembly, petition, and religion; the right to participate in the affairs of government (democracy); the assurance of due process; freedom from state tyranny; and the rights to work, leisure, and an adequate standard of living.

Most of the Universal Declaration's individual rights had been previously established as essential components of any democracy, both through the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and through the British Rights of Man (see History below). Yet their status as universal was new. Moreover, several of the rights in the Universal Declaration do not fall within the realm of political rights. Rather, they fall within the general scope of what former U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt had envisioned with his 1941 proclamation on Four Freedoms. The Soviet Union also supported these nonpolitical rights to offset obligations to observe political freedoms.

The Universal Declaration and subsequent human rights covenants did not immediately alter the behavior of all governments, and many continued to deny human rights to their citizens, some on a massive scale. The Universal Declaration also did not prevent state authorities from committing further barbarous acts. Nevertheless, the document and the system of human rights protection it established did make the principle that all human beings are "born free and equal in dignity and rights" a universal one. From this assertion of universality arose what many scholars consider as the modern concept of human rights. This inspired many of the movements for freedom leading to the collapse of some of the world's major human rights violators, from the Soviet Union to South Africa.