History of the human rights movement

Human rights are arguably the most powerful and widely-adopted moral language of international politics in the late 20th and early 21st century.  The pivotal moment in the history of modern human rights is the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Consequently, we can summarise human rights history in terms of the developing concept of rights that led up to the UDHR; the adoption of the UDHR and other key conventions in the aftermath of World War II; and the subsequent codification of the UDHR into international, regional and national law. 

Before the Universal Declaration on Human Rights

Although precedents to specific rights can be discerned within religious and political ideas prior to the Enlightenment, pre-Enlightenment thinking was primarily based on ideas such as duties, justice, and political and social position. The Magna Carta, for example, is often cited as an early human rights document but is more accurately viewed as a limited agreement about legal and political arrangements between members of the elite/ruling class.  The use of rights in philosophical and political dialogue gathered steam in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the Bill of Rights of England (1683), the US Declaration of Independence (1776) and Bill of Rights (1789), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) and the writings of John Locke, Voltaire and Thomas Paine. 

The 18th and early 19th centuries saw several key campaigns around specific issues of justice and rights, particularly the anti-slavery movement, women’s suffrage, and the growth of labour unions and related concerns about the rights of workers and the use of child labour.  After World War I, the charter of the League of Nations included a mandate to promote many of the rights later included in the UDHR. 

The passage of the Universal Declaration

The carnage of World War II provoked a strong international reaction which led to the founding of the United Nations and the codification of key concepts of international human rights law and humanitarian law.  The infant United Nations established a Commission on Human Rights, which gathered international figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt (US), Rene Cassin (France), John Humphrey (Canada), P.C. Chang (China) and Charles Malik (Lebanon).  The UDHR was adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948 with no dissenting votes, although eight countries did abstain. 

The UDHR is both a codification of existing ideas about human rights and a substantial step forward.  Prior declarations of rights tended to focus on “first generation” civil and political rights (e.g. life, liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of belief); the UDHR additionally recognized  “second generation” economic, social and cultural rights such as rights to education, family life, work, leisure and an adequate standard of living. (The “generations” denominator, although widespread, is somewhat misleading, as rights in various categories have often coexisted for a long time already.) The UDHR also advanced the idea of the universality of rights, i.e. rights are inherent in each human being and are not dependent on citizenship, race, gender, age or similar factors.  Prior declarations tended, explicitly or implicitly, to apply to adult male citizens of a particular country, whereas rights are now understood to apply to all people, including minority ethnic groups, women, children, migrants and refugees, and people with mental or physical disabilities. 

Around the same time, key documents in the related field of international humanitarian law were formulated or reinvigorated.  The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the UN on 9 December 1948. In 1949, the three existing Geneva Conventions, dealing with the treatment of victims of international armed conflict, were updated and supplemented by a Fourth Convention which focused on the protection of civilians in time of war.  

Putting the UDHR into practice: Legal enforcement

The UDHR, although a key codification of rights, has no legal standing or means of enforcement.  Legal enforceability is provided by a range of treaties, conventions and protocols, many of which have their own commissions or courts.  These include international-level treaties such as the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and regional instruments such as the American Convention on Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.  These treaties and conventions are given legal and enforcement powers through monitoring and reporting mechanisms, such as the UN Commission on Human Rights, and courts, such as the American, European and African Courts of Human Rights. Next, over 120 states have become party to the International Criminal Court which was established by treaty in 1998.  Many countries have since WWII incorporated the central concepts of the UDHR into their national legislation; the UK has nationalised human rights law through the passage in 1998 of its Human Rights Act. 

Declarations and conventions

Specific aspects of the UDHR have been further developed through declarations and conventions that apply to specific rights-bearers or specific types of rights.  For example, the UN has adopted instruments elaborating on the rights of women, children, indigenous peoples, refugees, persons with disabilities and migrant workers, as well as issue-based instruments such as on torture, freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination and “disappearances”.  Developments since the UDHR have given rise to a “third generation” of rights, many of which are oriented towards collective rights rather than individual rights, such as the rights to a clean environment, rights to communicate and the right to participate in cultural heritage. These are still developing and are less well codified and less universally recognized than the rights enumerated in the UDHR. 

The responsibilities of organisations, as well as nations

When the UDHR was passed, responsibility for the protection of rights was thought to lie primarily with the state. Later developments have broadened the principles of rights to apply to non-governmental entities such as resistance or para-military groups, transnational corporations and organisations who carry out functions on behalf of the state such as care homes.  In certain instances (see CEDAW below) rights are also understood to apply to private life. 

The rising importance of human rights can furthermore be seen in the growth of non-governmental organisations dealing with the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as in the adoption of human rights language and “rights-based approaches” by NGOs working on issues such as poverty, care for vulnerable groups and the environment. Human rights language is often seen as a means of shifting away from an attitude of charity and protection towards the powerless, in favour of empowering rights-bearers to seek justice and dignity. 

Persistent human rights challenges

In spite of this success, challenges to human rights persist.  There are ongoing debates about the philosophical foundations for rights and the extent to which rights should be modified to fit specific cultural norms and practices.  Balancing the rights of differing groups offers continuing challenges; for example, in the UK there are issues concerning the marriage and family rights of sexual minorities versus the rights of religious believers to adhere to a strictly heterosexual view of marriage and family. 

The heightened threat of terrorism has led to new restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and new governmental powers of surveillance and detention.  In the UK specifically, the Human Rights Act has come under attack for shifting the balance of power away from Parliament and towards the judiciary, for giving preference to the rights of criminals and terrorists over those of ordinary citizens, and for failing to recognize that society cannot function without rights being balanced by responsibilities. 

Nevertheless, in most cases these are debates about how human rights should be implemented in practice; the human rights discourse remains the most successful language we have for determining how those in power relate to those who are powerless, and for describing international aspirations to a life of freedom and dignity for all people. 

January 2013

About the author

London, UK

Patti Whaley is Director of Resources at Forum for the Future and has 23 years’ experience in charity management.  She has worked as... (Read more)

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