Human Rights evolution, a brief history.

By Marco Sutto

From "The CoESPU MAGAZINE" nr. 3- 2019

Selection: "Human Rights evolution, a brief history, pag.18

DOI Code: 10.32048/Coespumagazine3.19.3

By Marco Sutto

“Human rights” are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of our nationality, residence, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination.

This is the modern concept of our fundamental rights but it was not always this way. The belief that everyone, by virtue of her or his humanity, is entitled to certain human rights is fairly new and is something stemming from an evolution of the consideration of human dignity over the last centuries. Its roots lie in earlier tradition and documents of many cultures.

The origins  of Human Rights are ideally pinpointed to the year 539 BC. When the troops of Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Cyrus freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. These and other principles were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder known as the Cyrus Cylinder, whose provisions served as inspiration for the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Another cornerstone in Human Rights History is represented by the promulgation of the Magna Charta in 1215 which introduced a raw concept of “Rule of Law” and the basic idea of defined rights and liberties to all persons, which offers protection from arbitrary prosecution and incarceration. Before the Magna Charta, the rule of law,  now considered as a key principle for good governance in any modern democratic society,  was perceived as a divine justice, solely distributed by the monarch or the king or, in this case, King John of England.

An evolution of the concepts expressed by the Magna Carta  is represented by the English Bill of Rights. It was an act signed into law in 1689 by William III and Mary II, who became co-rulers in England after the overthrow of King James II. The bill outlined specific constitutional and civil rights and ultimately gave Parliament power over the monarchy. Many experts regard the English Bill of Rights as the primary law that set the stage for a constitutional monarchy in England. It’s also credited as being an inspiration for the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791).

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted in 1789, by France’s National Assembly , represents one of the basic charters of human liberties, containing the principles that inspired the French Revolution.

The basic value introduced by the Declaration was that all “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, which were specified as the rights of liberty, private property, the inviolability of the person, and resistance to oppression. All citizens were equal before the law and were to have the right to participate in legislation directly or indirectly; no one was to be arrested without a judicial order. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech were safeguarded within the bounds of public “order” and “law”. Private property was given the status of an inviolable right, which could be taken by the state only if an indemnity were given and offices and positions were opened to all citizens.

It is in this historical period that the concept, mostly based on political concerns, of Civil and Political Rights was defined. These rights, also known as first generation rights, recognise the existence of certain things that the all-powerful rulers should not be able to do and that people should have some influence over the policies affecting them. The two central ideas were those of personal liberty, and of protecting the individuals against violations by the State. They serve negatively to protect the individual from excesses of the State.

The steps forward made since the time of Cyrus were impressive, yet still many of these concepts, when originally translated into policies, excluded women, people of color, and members of certain social, religious, economic, and political groups.

Prime examples to overcome this situation are represented by the efforts in the 19th and early 20th centuries to prohibit the slave trade and to limit the horrors of war.

Significant is the adoption of the first three Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions expressing the deep concern of the public opinion to promote a respect of a basic level of Human dignity of individuals even in wartime and posing the foundations of  modern International Humanitarian Law. The concerns over the protection of certain minority groups, which were raised by the League of Nations at the end of the First World War, and the establishment of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to oversee treaties protecting workers with respect to their rights, including their health and safety, manifest  the increased positive attitude toward the recognition of the importance of Human Rights as we know them today.

The time for a revolution and a deep progress in the protection and promotion of human dignity was ripe. Eventually, it took the catalyst of World War II to propel human rights onto the global stage and into the global conscience. The unprecedented cruelties perpetrated during the conflict and outside it such as the extermination by Nazi Germany of over six million Jews, Sinti and Romani (gypsies), homosexuals, and persons with disabilities horrified the world. The idea of human rights thus emerged even stronger than ever after World War II. The Trials held in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II, introduced the rather new concepts of "crimes against peace," and "crimes against humanity."

Governments then committed themselves to establishing the United Nations, with the primary goal of bolstering international peace and preventing conflict. People wanted to ensure that never again would anyone be unjustly denied life, freedom, food, shelter, and nationality.

It was the 1945 and the fifty founding members of the United Nations stated, in the preamble of the UN Charter, that they were determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained in order to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

In the first article of the same Charter, Member states pledged “to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

A strong political commitment was set and to advance on these goals, a Commission on Human Rights was immediately established and charged with the task of drafting a document spelling out the meaning of the fundamental rights and freedoms proclaimed in the Charter. Three years later, The Commission, guided by Eleanor Roosevelt’s forceful leadership, captured the world’s attention, drafting the 30 articles that now make up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration was presented to the world, acting for the first time as a recognized and internationally accepted charter, whose first article states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

The UDHR, although not legally binding, introduces the concept that how a government treats its own citizens is now a matter of legitimate international concern, and not simply a domestic issue, and that  the exercise of a person's rights and freedoms may be subject to certain limitations, which must be determined by law, solely for the purpose of securing due recognition of the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

Its Preamble eloquently asserts that: recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. It restates the already identified civil and political rights and introduces the so-called second generation rights, fundamentally economic, social, and cultural in nature, furthermore claiming that all rights are interdependent and indivisible.

The message was clear and powerful, the realization of one Right is linked to the realization of the others. All human rights are indivisible, whether they are civil and political rights, such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education, or collective rights, such as the rights to development and self-determination, are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Similarly, the deprivation of one right hampers the improvement and enjoyment of the others.

The influence of the UDHR has been substantial and together with the  International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights it constitutes the so defined “International Bill of Rights” that lays down the obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from specific acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.

Its principles, by now, have been incorporated into the Constitutions of almost all the UN members and has achieved the status of customary international law regarded as a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.

Human Rights have continued to evolve and, since its foundation, the United Nations has adopted more than 20 principal treaties including conventions to prevent and prohibit specific abuses like torture and genocide and to protect particularly vulnerable populations, such as refugees (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951), women (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979), and children (Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989).

A multitude of other treaties and documents have clarified and further developed some of the basic concepts that were laid down in the original UDHR, thus envisaging new generations of rights. These additions have been a result of a number of factors, partly as a response to progressively modified ideas about human dignity, and partly as a result of new emerging threats and opportunities. As far as for the specific new category of rights, that have been proposed as third generation rights, these have been the consequence of a deeper understanding of the different types of obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing the first and second-generation rights. The idea at the base of the third generation of rights is that of solidarity and collective rights of society or peoples, such as the right to sustainable development, to peace or to a healthy environment.

In much of the world, conditions such as extreme poverty, war, ecological and natural disasters have meant that there has been only very limited progress in respect of human rights. For that reason, people have felt necessary the recognition of a new category of human rights.

Following emerging threats and opportunities, the so-called 4th generation rights, linked to the recent fast technology development, represent the last discussed frontier of Human Rights. A fusion of material, biological and digital technologies raises existential questions about what it means to be human and how to protect human dignity. Digitalization and “datification” of almost all human activities create new opportunities of development but also new possibilities for human rights violations.

Fortunately, it is nowadays clear that what human dignity means, how to protect and promote it, is a concept that, albeit rooted within the principles of the UDHR, is in constant evolution in accordance with the new necessities.  There is a need for a comprehensive response and whilst the international community is still discussing about 4th generation rights it is my belief that there will be room, in the future, for the fifth and, hopefully, for further generations of Human Rights.