History of Universal Human Rights
by Moira Rayner
Human rights are rights possessed by people simply as, and because they are,
human beings. The term has only come into common currency during the 20th
The idea of 'human rights' is not universal - it is essentially the product
of 17th and 18th century European thought. Even the idea of 'rights' does
not necessarily exist in every society or advanced civilization. Rights are not
the same thing as standards of behavior punishable or required by rules, which
can be fundamentally unfair to individuals, or used to oppress minority
The earliest rules about standards of behavior among people dealt with
prescribing or prohibiting conduct that experience proved was likely to lead
to conflict. There were great lawmakers - the Roman, Justinian, for one, who
published his great Codex of various laws in the early 6th century -who tried to
establish cohesive schemes of rights and duties. The great religions of the
world - Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and others -
have all sought to establish comprehensive, coherent moral codes of conduct
based on divine law. All contain profound ideas on the dignity of the human
being, and are concerned with the duties and obligations of man to his fellow
human beings, to nature and indeed to God and the whole of creation.
But until the 17th century such attempts to establish a framework for such
rules, laws and codes, whether in social, legal, secular or theological debate,
emphasized duties and privileges that arose from peoples' status or
relationships, rather than abstract rights that, philosophically, preceded or
underlay those relations or laws.
Then, attention moved from social responsibilities to the individual's needs and
participation. It was seen as fundamental to the well-being of society, under
the influence of philosophers such as Grotius, Hobbes and Locke, Then, these
rights were called 'natural' rights, or 'the rights of man'. These natural
or moral rights became part of the political agenda. They spread as the economic
frontiers came down.
One of the first, and most important, battles was about politics. Could
'natural rights' be handed over to rulers? People in their 'natural'
condition have unlimited freedom. If they choose to be ruled, they surrender
either all, or some at least of this 'natural right' to their king or
government, in exchange for civil society and peace. If they could surrender
'all', then people could be subjected to absolute government authority, and be
under an absolute duty to obey. If only some could be surrendered, then the
question is what part of those freedoms do we give up?
This issue became a tremendous cause in 17th century England. The protection of
the people's rights (especially the right to political participation, and
freedom of religious belief and observance) against an oppressive government was
the catch cry of the English Revolution of 1640 (which led to rebel leader
Oliver Cromwell heading the government, and the King being executed). It was
also the catch cry for the rebellion against the civil administration - the
'Glorious Revolution' - of 1688 which saw another King on the throne, but also
led to the English Bill of Rights, in 1689.
The Bill of Rights dealt with the fundamental concerns of the time. It
made the King subject to the rule of law, like any citizen, instead of claiming
to be the law's (divine) source. It required the King to respect the power of
Parliament - elected by the people, with the power to control the state's money
and property. It protected some basic rights to justice - excessive bail or
fines, cruel and unusual punishments and unfair trials: it guaranteed juries,
impartial courts and independent judges. It repeated some of royal promises made
by King John, under duress, in the Magna Carta (though Magna Carta was intended
to benefit the privileges of the aristocracy of the time, not the whole
population). It also established the people's preferred Protestant religion, at
a time when having a Catholic King was thought to endanger the sovereignty of
England. The Pope, in those days, was still a relatively powerful ruler of a
Towards the end of the 18th century, according to the philosopher John
Locke, it was argued that it was part of God's natural law that no-one
should harm anybody else in their life, health, liberty or possessions.
These rights could never be given up. The existence of this natural law also
established the right to do whatever was necessary to protect such rights.
This view limited the role of government. No-one could be subjected to another's
rule unless they consented. A government's responsibility became the duty to
protect natural rights. This limited what it could legitimately do and gave
its citizens the right to defy and overthrow a government that overstepped its
This thinking underlay the American colonies' Declaration of Independence
in 1776. This not only asserted that governments were established by the consent
of the people to protect rights, but unforgettably expressed these rights in the
terms 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.' Governments that did not
carry out their protective role could be overthrown.
Sadly, the Declaration did not, in fact, extend human rights to all human
beings. The first US Constitution expressly preserved the institution of
slavery and did not recognize the equal rights of women. Many 'rights' were
added to the US Constitution over the next 150 years: the Equal Rights
Amendment, designed to give women equality was defeated in a referendum just
In 1788, as a result of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the
Rights of Man and of Citizens asserted the primacy of natural rights in
similarly inspirational terms to the US Declaration of Independence.
Yet in the Terror that soon followed the Revolution, with all its hopes,
thousands unjustly lost their lives or suffered greatly in the name of
The doctrines of human rights that we now have are direct descendants of this
thinking. The disparity in rights protection in practice reflected the society
of the time.
A human right is 'natural' in that every one owns them, not because they
are subject to any particular system of law or religious or political
administration. They can be asserted against individuals, but they express the
political objective: that governments must respect, protect and promote them.
The greatest 20th century statements of 'natural' or human rights can be dated
to 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This preceded a range of
international Conventions, Covenants, Declarations and other treaties that have
followed the tradition. Most came from the United Nations. But other groups have
also adopted human rights standards. The European community, for example, has
adopted a Convention on Human Rights. Many nations have incorporated rights into
their national constitutions - acknowledging that the rights exist, not that
they are created by their laws.
The most common 'universal' rights are the right to life; to freedom; to
own property (limiting where government may intrude); citizenship rights
(voting, nationality and participation in public life); rights to standards of
good behavior by governments (or protection of the rule of law), and social,
economic and cultural rights. The latter have become important during the 20th
century, and raise important and still controversial issues about social justice
and the distribution of wealth.
Universal human rights are, historically, the flower of what was originally a
European plant. They have now received the support of world nations. Respect
for human rights is becoming a universal principle of good government.
Read more about
organizations which care about children and provide every child the equal
rights. Read about their work and more.
A lot of people helped children to be happy and
to feel safe. But there is still huge number of unprotected children.