Human Rights and Freedom from State Tyranny: Essential Principles

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 its 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, was one of those who arrived at one of the subcamps within the Buchenwald complex. He described the horrifying scenes he saw:

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.

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 mostly 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 nation states and sovereign territories. In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR. It was the first code of international standards for human rights and set the standards that all member states of this new international institution pledged to respect.

The most important principle of the charter was stated as the "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. . . .” Such recognition, the charter continued, “is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." The UDHR's 30 articles enumerate a broad array of fundamental rights, including "the right to life, liberty, and security of person."
Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Other rights include the right to emigrate and to find asylum; the rights to free expression; the rights to association and assembly; the right to petition the government for redress of wrongs; the right to practice one’s religion; the right to participate in the affairs of government; the assurance of due process; freedom from state tyranny; and the rights to work, leisure, and an adequate standard of living.

Most of the UDHR's individual rights had been previously established as essential components of any democracy through the British Bill of Rights of 1689, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (see History). Yet, their status as the framework for universal rights for all people and for all countries, to be protected by a framework of international law and institutions, was new.

Definitions, Tiers, and Enforcement

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 to these questions lies in how the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and subsequent conventions were adopted.

One of the main difficulties in writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was that it involved the participation of nondemocratic regimes whose aims were antithetical to human rights. The Soviet Union became a Western ally during World War II following Nazi Germany’s surprise invasion in June 1941, but in peacetime it returned to being a rival to the Western democracies. For the Soviet Union, the period after World War II was an opportunity to consolidate its control over Eastern Europe and extend its influence worldwide. Within the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Soviet delegation asserted the primacy of “competing" and "higher” economic and social rights against “bourgeois” civil and political rights proposed by the democracies. Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady who headed the U.S. delegation, was chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights from 1946 to 1951. She spent considerable effort in contending with the head of the Soviet delegation, Andrei Vyshinsky, himself a notorious human rights violator as Stalin's general prosecutor during the Great Purge trials of the 1930s that laid the groundwork for an estimated one million executions and four to six million people imprisoned in mass forced labor camps. Mrs. Roosevelt insisted on the preeminence of political rights within any human rights charter and argued that the emphasis on alternate rights as proposed by the Soviet Union were aimed at deflecting criticism of its own totalitarian dictatorship. The atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Germany had overshadowed revelations of the Soviet Union's own terrible repression and treatment of its citizens in its own network of penal and labor camps. However, basic facts about the Great Purges, the forced famine in Ukraine, and mass imprisonment in forced labor camps — the victims of the Soviet system of “economic rights” — were emerging. 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 (UDHR) and to break up a proposed “International Bill of Rights” into two parts, which eventually led to the adoption of 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. The UN later approved other human rights documents, including the UN Convention Against Torture and the Universal Convention on the Rights of the Child (see Resources for links to UN Human Rights Conventions).

The separation of the International Bill of Rights into two conventions and the adoption of subsequent human rights conventions led to various attempts to define the different categories of human rights. Some theorists defined them respectively as individual and collective. Others defined categories of human 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 both through its deliberations and through the oversight of its conventions. Thus, while other categories of rights are valid, the most significant for the UN has been the distinction between non-derogable and derogable rights. Non-derogable rights refer to what governments cannot do under any circumstances. Governments cannot wantonly restrict all 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 freedom of expression, assembly, association, and some due process rights — but only for limited times to deal with such emergencies. The third major distinction is between what governments must do and what governments should do. This last category includes the protection of national, ethnic, and cultural heritage or ensuring the rights to employment, a decent wage, a decent environment, universal education, and access to culture.

When the UN Commission on Human Rights was established in 1948, Soviet-bloc states tried to deflect attention from civil and political rights towards social and economic rights. But the commission consistently focused its attention on adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later on to the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on Torture, and the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide (1948). This is the system of non-derogable rights and other essential rights that are derogable but may be restricted only temporarily and for limited reasons. The extent of time, scope, and cause of limiting derogable rights was determined through some clear precedents. In the 1980s, for example, 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 over an extended period to repress the free trade union Solidarity on grounds of maintaining “public order.”

Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights

While civil and political rights have been given primary consideration within the UN system, economic, social, and cultural rights have also been given prominence through the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966). In 1993, at the World Conference on Human Rights, the right of development was also considered for the first time as a human right and the United Nations has established an overall framework for countries to strive for development goals. Nevertheless, these other rights have not achieved the same universal standard as civil and political rights mainly because many relate to desirable government policies (such as full employment and universal health care) or undefinable rights (such as “economic security”) rather than civil and political rights that governments must not transgress or may only transgress in limited and defined circumstances. Thus, no country has been punished with sanctions due to violations of economic or social rights. Nevertheless, the ability of many Western democracies and other wealthy countries to achieve certain of these rights, such as universal access to health care, education, and housing, as well as basic welfare, has raised the standard of these rights. What has become clear over time also is that the countries whose governments argued in favor of the primacy of economic and social rights over civil and political rights within international human rights institutions — such as the Soviet Bloc and other communist countries — generally did not or could not provide or fulfill such rights within their own countries. Such arguments tended to mask not only these governments’ political repression but also their conditions of general poverty.

Lee Kuan Yew

 Human Rights Resisters

Despite the establishment of universal standards by the UN, many members continued to violate human rights on a massive scale with the justification of a variety of ideologies. Communism posed the single greatest challenge to universal human rights standards, but other challenges based on racism (apartheid), nationalism, or national security were constant.

The continued violation of human rights, however, does not negate their universality. Even the worst human rights resisters recognize the legitimacy of universal human rights principles by signing the international conventions of the United Nations, belonging to its institutions protecting universal principles of human rights, and making propaganda claims that they in fact adhere to human rights or claiming to be “people’s democracies.”

One of the more stubborn arguments against the universality of human rights was made by authoritarian leaders in Asia such as Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Muhamad, former prime ministers of Singapore and Malaysia, respectively. They defended their regimes’ authoritarian systems based on Asian “cultural values,” arguing that democracy and human rights are Western concepts incompatible with Asian countries where there are different morals and cultural practices based on respect for authority and social uniformity. They argue that Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and China have been able to develop economically and achieve political stability through principles of authoritarianism that they maintain as compatible with capitalism and free markets. China’s leaders also repeatedly argue against democracy as a Western concept. Recently President Xi Jinping has ordered a crackdown on teaching Western political thought at Chinese universities. Yet, while these countries may have recent economic achievements, generally the most economically well-off and politically stable countries are not these but democracies respecting civil and political rights, including such Asian countries as Japan and South Korea, the third- and thirteenth-largest economies in the world in GDP. Such examples make clear that the argument justifying Asian authoritarianism is used mainly to justify repressive policies and avoid international obligations under UN conventions (see also discussion in Economic Freedom), 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.

A Global Assessment

Indeed, for the past 70 years, when Asian, African, North and South American, and European societies have been free to choose, they have all chosen democracy and human rights over dictatorship and repression. Of course, there remain many dictatorships, most significantly Russia and China, the largest countries in the world respectively in area and population. In total, Freedom House lists 50 “not free” countries in its 2016 Freedom in the World Survey, as well as 59 “partly free” countries. The “not free” (as well as the “partly free”) Country Studies in Democracy Web describe the many ways in which countries deny their citizens human rights.

Still, despite a decade in which Freedom House has recorded that many indicators for freedom declined overall, 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. An additional 37 countries count as electoral democracies having “partly free” systems where human rights are at least partly respected. The balance sheet for human rights is incomplete, and there remain "barbarous acts that outrage the conscience of humankind," but since the time when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted to address such acts, there have been also significant advances for human rights and freedom from state tyranny.