Human Rights and Freedom from State Tyranny: History


The Origins of Human Rights

In Western thought, the concept of human rights is derived partly from the practices and texts of monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. One of the primary human rights in all international conventions is the right to life — a right first elaborated as the first commandment 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 all elaborated in religious texts that influence the ethical beliefs of most 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 establish the universal significance of their cause.

The evolution of political freedom and the concept of human rights have many historical developments to draw from, such as the expansion of citizenship rights for males in ancient Athens by Cleisthenes and Cyrus the Great's abolition of slavery in the ancient Persian Empire. A more lasting foundation was King John's signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 in England (discussed in other sections), which established a foundation for the development of constitutional limits, the rule of law, and parliamentary rule in Britain.

The Enlightenment, John Locke, and Natural Rights philosophical underpinnings of modern standards of human rights are . . . found in the Enlightenment, the philosophical period when concepts such as natural rights, natural law, social contracts, and the rights of man were more fully developed.

The philosophical underpinnings of modern standards of human rights, however, are more recent. These are found in the Enlightenment, the historical period when concepts such as natural rights, natural law, social contracts, and the rights of man were more fully developed. Until the Enlightenment, most political philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes, justified monarchical rule. Hobbes, for example, famously defended monarchical rule as the only way in which to avoid the brutish state of man's nature. The tumultuous English civil wars of the 17th century seemed to traditionalists to confirm this low assessment of human behavior. In response to Hobbes, the English philosopher John Locke set out to find a new basis for legitimate government. In his Two Treatises of Civil Government (1680–90), Locke asserted that the essential aspect of man's state in nature is not brutishness but rather his possession of natural rights endowed to him by God, namely those of "life, liberty, and estate." In Locke’s view, people come together to form government out of self-interest, not fear as Hobbes wrote, so as to give them the possibility to enjoy these rights.

Locke was not the first person to assert the existence of natural rights, nor was he the first to develop a political philosophy from the idea of the state of nature (examples date to the classical world). However, he was the first to posit that the natural rights of man lay the foundation for self-government among equal citizens and that "no legitimate government exists without the consent of the governed." A government based on monarchy or one leader is by its nature tyrannical and denies citizens the rights they possess by nature. This philosophy had a great influence on the founders of the United States: Thomas Jefferson considered Locke one of the three greatest men of the millennium. Locke’s assertions formed the basis for consensual government — republican democracy — first within the individual American colonies and then within the United States of America (see also Consent of the Governed). It was the first experiment in self-government and a state free of tyranny.

From Locke to Kant

From the natural rights of man to “life, liberty and estate” posited by Locke (and incorporated into the Declaration of Independence) there developed a more expansive definition of rights. The English Bill of Rights of 1689, adopted two years after Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, broadened the Magna Carta’s original restrictions on state power to re-confirm in a basic charter the additional rights that British citizens had established for themselves. These included the right of citizens to petition government for grievances and citizens’ rights to due process against the abuse of power by the king. The US Bill of Rights went further still by establishing political and civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, association, assembly, and religion as fundamental to a system of self-government (see also Constitutional Limits and Rule of Law). The 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued for the universal application of rights and the abolishment of social distinctions within a system of political rights in his Second Discourse and The Social Contract. His ideas influenced the adoption in 1789 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which embodied the more egalitarian spirit of the French Revolution (for example by granting suffrage to all male citizens regardless of class). Around the same time, the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant revisited the issue of natural rights from a different perspective. He asserted that universal rights and duties were not just inherent from the self-interest of individuals to protect their rights and possessions but derived from the basic equality and moral autonomy of individuals. Kant asserted that the human capacity for reason provided the basis for moral action. In this view, natural rights are not granted or given by God. They exist as human rights and are universal based on the underlying rationality of human beings and their capacity for moral action. While one can cite many other philosophers in influencing the evolution of European political thought, these three — Locke, Rousseau, and Kant — had the most profound impact in establishing the modern philosophical foundation for the respect of universal human rights.

The Struggle for Abolition and Universality

Of course, neither the American nor the French Revolutions created full political equality or even an end to state tyranny. There existed many contradictions between the foundational principles each espoused and the practices of the governments they established. The French Revolution’s broad assertion of human rights did not prevent the descent into the Reign of Terror, which justified thousands of beheadings by the need to protect the revolution from its enemies. As well, notwithstanding the universality of his language, John Locke justified slavery and the exclusion of non-property owners from voting. Many of the founders of the United States, influenced by Locke's assertion that property was the principal basis for political rights, argued that property ownership, including the right to own slaves, was not only a fundamental right but the only basis for political participation in a republic.

The abolition of slavery was an essential step in establishing the universality of human rights. In 1807, the British parliament outlawed the slave trade and in 1833 it outlawed slavery within the British Empire. The government then undertook significant military efforts to prevent slave trading by other states. Leaders in France's First Republic outlawed slavery as early as 1794, but it was restored by Napoleon in 1802 and only banned for good in 1848. The Netherlands abolished slavery throughout its colonies in 1863, the same year that Russia abolished serfdom. Slavery was steadily abolished in Latin America after the wars of independence but not immediately (Brazil was the last country to do so in 1888). In the United States, where millions of people had been brought in chains from Africa for forced labor, slavery was abolished gradually in northern states by 1808 but only fully as a result of the Civil War with the secessionist Confederate States, one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history. President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Confederate states. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution adopted in 1865 definitively abolished slavery throughout the US. (Principles of equal rights and equal suffrage regardless of race — established in the 14th and 15th Amendments — were routinely transgressed, especially in the South where Reconstruction policies were defeated by adherents of white supremacy. There, a system of Jim Crow laws put in place that denied the most basic rights of African Americans. It was only through the efforts of America’s Civil Rights Movement over more than eighty years that the 14th and 15th amendments became the central legal pillars prohibiting discrimination. See also History sections in Free Elections, Majority Rule, Minority Rights, and Rule of Law.)

Broadsheet supporting the abolition of slavery, 1837

The abolition of slavery by the world's major powers in the 19th century, including in their colonies, made the right of persons not to be held in servitude one of the first universally established human rights. It is enshrined in Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately, neither slavery nor forced labor has been eradicated globally. According to a US State Department report, human bondage and trafficking continues for an estimated 27 million men, women, and children.

The Rise of Independence; 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 progress accelerated at the end of World War I, providing further impetus to the idea of equal rights for citizens of a nation state and also to the connection between national independence and political freedom. In Europe, many countries previously under subjugation as part of the Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires gained independence after World War I. Both before and after World War II, anticolonial movements arose in many parts of the world to press for political participation, democracy, human rights, and independence in countries and territories controlled by imperial powers.

Yet just as freedom movements were gaining traction in many areas of the world, Fascist, Communist, and imperial ideologies were taking hold in other parts. In the 1920s and 1930s, totalitarian movements seized power in Spain, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union (which had reconstituted and expanded much of the former Russian empire). The level of tyranny instituted by these regimes was unprecedented in the modern world and carried out on a massive scale affecting the lives of all citizens and also targeting whole nationalities and ethnic and religious groups for enslavement or extermination. The challenge to human rights was global: the aim of both fascist and communist regimes was world domination and the total subjugation of societies in the service of totalitarian ideologies. Nazi Germany partnered with Italy and Japan as the Axis powers to divide the world for occupation. The Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union divided Europe among these two totalitarian powers.

The determined resistance of Britain, the ultimate intervention of the United States, and the resistance of occupied populations and exile armies were decisive in thwarting the Axis plan for mass extermination and the total annihilation of human rights was thwarted. But the Nazis’ ultimate defeat was also due to Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union, ending the Hitler-Stalin partnership and forcing Stalin’s regime to take part in the struggle against Nazi Germany as a temporary ally of the free Allied nations. But it was the leaders of the US and the United Kingdom who established the essential principles for that struggle when Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in August 1941 to sign the Atlantic Charter. It asserted that certain basic standards of governance would guide the postwar world, including principles of self-determination, non-aggression, disarmament, and freedom.

Out of the Postwar Rubble: A Foundation for Universality

From the rubble of World War II, there emerged a profound determination by the US and United Kingdom, working together with leaders of other free countries, to entrench the principles of the Atlantic Charter in international law to be enforced by a binding international framework. The main institutional foundation of the new international system was the United Nations. The Charter of the UN incorporated the Atlantic Charter’s principles of self-determination, non-aggression, and inviolability of sovereignty into the new world security order. It was signed on June 26, 1945 by representatives of 51 countries gathered in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization.

One of the UN's first tasks was to create the foundation for an international framework also for human rights. It established a Commission on Human Rights in 1946, which was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the head of the US delegation. Two years later, after nearly 1,400 votes on the specific wording of the text, the General Assembly, now with 56 members, approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by a vote of 48–0. Eight states abstained. (See Essential Principles for further discussion of the adoption of the UDHR.) From the rubble of World War II, there emerged a profound determination . . . to entrench [basic standards of governance] in international law to be enforced by a binding international framework.

In addition to the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ad hoc Nuremberg and Tokyo International War Crimes Tribunals (as well as initial trials held at German concentrations camps) established the principle that state sovereignty did not protect individuals responsible for committing war crimes or crimes against humanity on behalf of a state government. These precedents were one of the foundations for the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted in 1948, which today is the most widely recognized international treaty governing the practice of nation-states (see also discussion in Rule of Law). In the 1990s, the UN established three special international tribunals to prosecute individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Other special tribunals were established for Cambodia, East Timor, Lebanon, and Sierra Leone. The Rome Statute came into effect in 2002, which created a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC). As of 2013, there were 139 total signatories to the Rome Statute and 18 cases being investigated and prosecuted of individuals from the Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Sudan, and Uganda (see link).

Another important institution in the foundation of international human rights is the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was established in 1919. It is the only institution of the League of Nations to survive and become a part of the UN system. In setting conditions for labor and freedom of association, the ILO brought worker rights into the framework of human rights (see also Freedom of Association).

Separately, the Council of Europe adopted the European Convention on Human Rights, which entered into force in 1953, and established the European Court of Human Rights. It has overseen compliance with the Convention among the Council’s members, now numbering 53, for more than 50 years.

Universality in Principle and Practice

As noted in Essential Principles, many UN member states continued to violate human rights on a massive scale with varying justifications. The broad scope and extent of such violations even today is made clear by the annual Freedom in the World Report of Freedom House (see 2016 Report and the Country Studies in Democracy Web of “not free” as well as “partly free” countries). In total, Freedom House lists 50 “not free” countries in its 2016 Freedom in the World Report, as well as 59 “partly free” countries where human rights are also regularly violated. These countries encompass 60 percent of the world’s population.

Yet the Atlantic Charter’s assertion that the right of self- governance should be extended to “all peoples” and the UDHR’s assertion that all human beings are "born free and equal in dignity and rights" propelled a large expansion of human rights internationally. These fundamental concepts and the UDHR’s more specific definition of the rights that all human beings were entitled to inspired movements for de-colonialization, freedom, and democracy around the world that have led to the collapse of some of the world's major human rights violators, from South Africa to the Soviet Union. According to Freedom House, the number of “free” countries where human rights are generally respected is now 86 out of 195, an increase of 42 countries since the survey was first done in 1973. More importantly, the essential standards established by the UDHR and subsequent human rights conventions made universal the principle that human rights should be respected by all states. Even governments violating human rights feel obliged to sign human rights conventions. In doing so, they place themselves under international scrutiny regarding their human rights practices.

The UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) continued as a permanent UN agency for enforcement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other conventions on human rights among member states. The effectiveness of the UNCHR was limited since many of its members included blatant human rights violators. Thus, for example, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union — among the most blatant violations of state sovereignty and human rights in the post-war period — were not even deliberated by the commission. In 2005, with many democracies frustrated by its performance, the mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights was ended in order to create a new UN Human Rights Council, which began operating in 2006. However, its membership also includes human rights violators and, in truth, its deliberations have become even more politicized and biased. For example, since 2006 there have been 50 resolutions with targeted criticism of Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy, while the human rights record of the People’s Republic of China was only dealt with once, in 2014, in a “uniform periodic review” that muted a number of criticisms and recommendations.

Despite the highly mixed record of both the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), nevertheless they have carried out essential monitoring of human rights abuses of UN member states and established numerous precedents in upholding international human rights standards. For example, after failing to address human rights violations in communist states over the course of decades, the UNCHR, along with the International Labour Organization (ILO), set an important precedent in the 1980s by consistently adopting critical resolutions of the Polish People’s Republic and appointing Commissions of Inquiry and Special Rapporteurs to investigate human and worker rights violations after the government’s imposition of martial law in December 1981 aimed at destroying the free trade union Solidarity. Focused criticism by the UNCHR and ILO of Poland under martial law, as well as of Chile under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet, of South Africa under the apartheid regime, and of many other dictatorships, were significant in assisting freedom movements in these countries. The UNCHR’s and ILO’s actions helped to maintain international attention on the human and worker rights situation in these countries, provide dissidents and opposition movements greater public legitimacy in their own countries and abroad, and prod both foreign governments and the UN to impose sanctions and other pressure on the authorities in these countries that resulted in concrete steps to abide by international commitments to protect human rights. More recently, the UN Human Rights Council established Commissions of Inquiry for Syria and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. These special commissions have issued comprehensive reports on human rights violations that are he basis for resolutions of condemnation and referrals for action by the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court (links to these reports may be found in Resources for Syria and North Korea.) The principle of human rights universality that the US government helped to establish through the UN and UDHR had a profound impact within the United States as well, providing an essential argument for achieving the civil rights victories of African Americans and other minorities in the 1950s and 1960s.

The principle of human rights universality that the US government helped to establish through the UN and UDHR had a profound impact within the United States as well, providing an essential argument for achieving the civil rights victories of African Americans and other minorities in the 1950s and 1960s. Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement like Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin pointed to the principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other documents as one of the bases for their demands to achieve, finally, equal rights in the US. Such victories led further to applying equal rights principles for women, persons with disabilities, and the LGBT community, both in the US and internationally.

The first human rights organizations were the societies organized against slavery in Britain and the US. Freedom House, founded in 1941 under the bipartisan leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and the recently defeated Republican candidate for president, Wendell Wilkie, was among the first organizations to generally advocate for human rights worldwide and helped to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, the principle of the universality of human rights is reflected in the many human rights organizations that have been organized in the US, Europe, and throughout the world, including in many countries where human rights are being denied and human rights defenders risk prison and other repression for their work (see Resources).