Anyways here it is. (I'm almost too embarrassed to post it, since I am sure it is probably riddled with grammatical errors and mistakes...oh well, at least my opening paragraph is pretty f*ing sexy.) Enjoy:
"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."
The modern day conception of ‘human rights’ is substantially different from the conceptions that have dominated the past. However today's notion of human rights, that every human has equal and inalienable rights, did not emerge serendipitously. It is the heir of a genealogy of thought that can be traced as far back as ancient Greece, passed down to the succeeding generations and civilizations, adopted and adapted, modernized and molded to each historical context, each time becoming more robust, more inclusive, and ultimately more attractive to humankind across the globe. There have been many obstacles, myriad debates and controversies, that human rights has faced during its development, but each time it has been persistently consistent at aiming towards and achieving consensus and building upon the overlapping layers of agreement. Today the concept of human rights faces two seemingly insuperable obstacles. The first obstacle concerns the very proposal of universal human rights; there is a polarization between human rights’ universal prescriptability and its culturally biased relativity. The second obstacle concerns the practicality of human rights; there is an immense challenge required to uphold the protection, the promotion, and the implementation of these inalienable and naturally inherited rights. These two obstacles could be the last two hurdles the concept of universal human rights has to overcome, but they could also be the two hurdles that ultimately trip up and prevent the concept of human rights from ever achieving a global consensus. But before I address these, more modern day, issues, I think it is pertinent to the discussion to look back at the historical track of human rights and trace its development, its birth and evolution, up to present day. By looking at human rights under this historical lens of development I hope to build a more clear and accurate understanding of the concept that is universal human rights.
The genealogy of human rights has a long ancestry in numerous civilizations and cultures, but most scholars trace its origins to ancient Greece. One train of thought that is often pointed to in tracking the development of human rights is the philosophies of the Greek Stoics. However it is important to note that while the Stoic’s philosophies relate to human rights, their conception of a human’s rights is starkly different from our conception of it today. The Stoic’s conception of human rights was primarily concerned with the laws that nature endows upon man, to which he should be judged, and act in accordance with, in order to be in a state of harmony with nature. These natural laws were upheld by the gods, as is clearly illustrated in Sophocles’ famous Greek tragedy Antigone, in which the main heroine, whose name is the title of the play, is angered at King Creon’s recent declaration concerning her recently killed brother Polyneices, because she feels the declaration—t hat her brother committed treason and should not be buried in soil—was against the will (or the law) of the gods (SOURCE). This concept of natural laws to which man is to act in accordance with and is granted certain rights because of, was later embraced by, elaborated upon, and spread by the Romans. The Roman jurist Ulpian, for example, stated that “natural law was that which nature, not the state, assures to all human beings, Roman citizens or not” (SOURCE). It was not until after the medieval ages, most evidently during the 17th and 18th centuries—the enlightenment era, when man became rather obsessed with flattering himself—that natural law would come to be associated with natural rights, and the hitherto ‘duties’ of man that were part and parcel of natural law were deemphasized allowing for the ‘rights’ of man to step into the limelight of European thought.
One of the main axles of this great shift during the Enlightenment era was the British theorist John Locke. According to Locke there are certain inalienable rights that individuals inherently and (as Locke loved to say) self-evidently possessed as human beings—such as the right to life, liberty, and property. By connecting human rights with natural laws Locke was able to solidify and crystallize his claim that all humans possessed inherent universal individual rights. Many other theorists of the enlightenment era would help build upon this philosophy, such as Voltaire and Motesquieu, and the implications of these ideas would be profound.
As history would show, these self evident human rights undoubtedly fertilized the early seeds of revolution that would characterize the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, which shook up the very foundations of society. The idea of inherent naturally endowed human rights gave people a common justification to revolt against the status quo of corrupt and unjust monarchs, religious patriarchs, and political absolutism. The influence of these inherent human rights can be seen in a number of dramatic historical events, most notably: the Glorious Revolution in England, which was followed by the creation of The Bill of Rights; the American Revolution, which would produce The Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, proclaiming in eloquently bold prose: “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”; and the French Revolution, which resulted in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on August 26, 1789 (SOURCE). These revolutions sent reverberations around the world and would become shining examples for the aspiring peoples—who felt that they too possessed these inherent individual rights—to emulate. The concepts of liberty, equality, justice, and freedom, became the stars in the dark sky of political absolutism that people looked up to and used to navigate to achieve and reach their end goals. But these ‘rights’ were still far from being universal human rights applicable to all members of the human race. For example in the writings of Aristotle or later in the writings of the Catholic Saint and scholar Aquinas, for the former slavery and for the latter serfdom were seen as legitimate, which to our modern biases of liberte and egalite seem very il-legitimate indeed. Moreover the proclamations of these declarations were fairly grandiose aspirations vis-à-vis the social reality or context in which they were written. One might say that the concepts embedded in these documents were swallowed, but not yet fully digested, since there were still ethnic and racial inequalities in many of the societies that espoused and endorsed these declarations (and these inequalities would hang around for quite some time). Finally it should be emphasized that the scope of human rights during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was primarily focused on political and civil liberties—the freedom from rule, in the name of rights—like, for example, the abolition of slavery, and the development of social, economic, cultural, and universal rights as prominent priorities did not blossom until late in the 20th century (Birmingham p.2). But before we move to the twentieth century we should examine another important aspect that contributed to the continuing development of human rights: international travel.
Dating as far back as ancient times, but exponentially increased by technological developments (which made it more accessible and affordable), industrialization, and an interest in exploration, the migration of citizens and travel in general by citizens ultimately led not only to the spread of and interaction between cultures, but also to a need of developing rights, laws, and conventions which applied to foreign aliens as they traveled abroad. The natural rights and laws that were created and elaborated upon by such legal theorists as Grotius, Francisco de Vitoria, and Emmerich de Vattel, applied to both citizen and outlander, equally. However this notion seemed to apply only, as the old adage goes, ‘in theory, not in practice’ since it was usually only observed and applicable to the former, the colonial nationals or citizens, and the outlanders were (for colonial expansionist purposes) usually kept ignorant of these natural rights and laws for their humane treatment that they were said to inherently possess. During the 19th and 20 th centuries the application of these natural laws and rights to foreign citizens became prominent and as a result the promotion and protection of these natural rights began to be carried out by colonial states who applied it to citizens other than their own. Governments or regimes that oppressed, denied, or failed to recognize these rights to their citizenry became designated targets for invasion or intervention by the colonial states, which was now legitimatized by the stated goal of liberation and democratization. This movement caused a wave of political, economic, and military interventionism in places such as the Ottoman Empire, Syria, Crete, various Balkan countries, Romania, Russia, to name only a few (SOURCE).Moreover conferences were held, such as the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, and ever more prolifically in between and after the two world wars, in which treaties and international declarations that sought to protect certain racial, linguistic, and religious minorities were established. One of the key issues during this time period was the abolishment of slavery and the slave trade and various treaties, starting with the Treaty of Paris in 1814, represent this quest that ultimately culminated with the International Slavery Convention in 1926 (SOURCE). But other issues such as the trafficking of women and children, fair and just treatment of indigenous people, the prevention and control of disease, and rights concerning labor, such as fair pay and humane working conditions were also prominent (SOURCE).This trend shows that the rights of citizen and outlander were increasingly emerging into the rights of all human beings, a synthesis that would be crystallized and made concrete by the tragic events that took place during the 20th century.
Quite the paradoxical era, the twentieth century concluded with a series of substantial social accomplishments, but almost every decade during the era was characterized by horrific warfare, mass human atrocities, and economic hardships and depressions causing most of the people of the era to feel a certain poignant apathy towards the bleak, apocalyptic, and helplessly dire world in which they lived. I call this era paradoxical because while events internationally appeared futile to the human race and human rights, events on the domestic front (at least in North America and Europe) seemed very promising indeed, as there was a great resurgence of social movements by numerous minority groups who were ultimately able to accomplish significant gains in creating equal rights for themselves. Movements such as African civil rights, women’s suffrage, workers rights, trade unions, et cetera which were especially prominent and successful during this era. One of the most monumental developments in the history of human rights that took place during the 20th century was the creation of the United Nations, followed by the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The United Nations, the heir of the League of Nations, is an institution that was established after World War II for very much the same purposes as the League of Nations, and thus inherited many of the same aspirations, goals, and functions of the
After witnessing the egregious fighting of trench warfare during World War I, there was a consensus among nations that the failure of diplomacy, of political discussion and agreements, was what led to the horrific world war, a war which had accomplished little, besides massive casualties and ruined economies. It was in this context that the
When the Second World War ended, human rights skyrocketed to the forefront of the global agenda. During the Nuremburg Trials, named after the city in
In June 1945, the representatives of 51 countries met in
The UN Charter assigns the responsibility of spreading and upholding human rights to the General Assembly. This being the trunk then, there are also more individual branches such as the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Commission on Human Rights, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) which also and more pertinently assist in the promotion and protection of human rights. The second branch (which actually grows off of the first branch…sorry about the struggling metaphor), the UN Commission on Human Rights, is in charge of crafting the policy that the UN embraces towards human rights. The third branch, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is the official who is in charge of implementing and coordinating the human rights programs and projects that the UN is engaged in (TEXTBOOK).
The five pillars of human rights which have been built up on the solid foundations established by the UN Charter are: the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and finally the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (TEXTBOOK). For the purposes and constraints of this essay we will focus on only the last pillar mentioned.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a monumental milestone in the development of universal human rights because it represented a set of internationally agreed norms, a consensus unlike anything that had come before it. Its primary focus was on protecting the rights of citizens from the “coercive capabilities of states” (TEXTBOOK), but it offered a wide menu of human rights, such as ‘the right to life, to due process of law, and to freedom of thought and worship; the right not to be tortured or enslaved; and “the right to a standard living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family” (SOURCE). But this document wasn’t without its critics. Many charged the UDHR of being too sweeping in its postulates, ambiguous, not implementable, and biased towards Western or European conceptions of human rights. These last two issues are the two I wish to cover in depth.
The argument that the UDHR is folly, because it lacks the ‘teeth’ or reliable mechanisms to enforce the promotion and protection of the rights it embraces, to me isn’t a very strong one. As Jack Donnelly puts it in his book Universal Human Rights, ‘the “can” in [the phrase] “ought implies can” [sic] refers to the physical impossibility; unless it is physically impossible, one may still be obliged to try to do something that proves to be “impossible”’ (SOURCE). There is no reason to think that we should abandon our aim of promoting and protecting human rights simply because it is currently difficult based on the mechanisms established in the UN body. The UN is a heterogeneous organization who’s fickleness and inability to successfully accomplish all of its goals consistently is due to the fact that the states, which make up the UN body and power, are unwilling to sacrifice their sovereignty for the cause of human rights.
It is undeniable that the modern conception of human rights has been heavily influenced by the European intellectual tradition, or generally speaking, European culture, as can be seen by the emphasis on individualism and liberalism, and the result of this association has led many to argue that the modern conception of Human Rights is a coerced conception, one that the West has forced on the rest, and does not hold any larger universal truth, since morals are, after all, simply relative. The Bangkok Declaration, which was signed by 40 Asian governments, addressed this issue by arguing that the concepts of justice and freedom are based on “regional particularities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds”(Mullerson p.82). Both Asian and African countries also note that at the time of the UDHR, 1948, they were still under colonial rule and were not participants in the Declaration’s construction (TEXTBOOK). And African countries argued that the focus of human rights should be diverted from individual political and legal freedoms to a focus on the economic and social needs of the people (primarily the poor). “In their declaration, Africans claimed for themselves an absolute right to receive development aid from wealthy states, even as they sought to weaken the concept of absolute rights in the political sphere (TEXTBOOK). This division was so great that the entire universal human rights endeavor was nearly abandoned, since the argument of relativity prevented nations from agreeing on such things as the condemnation of torture. (NYTIMES ARTICLE). However these setbacks and disagreements over the universality of human rights were shown to be reconcilable by the 1993 Vienna Conference, a two week summit held by the UN, which forged a consensus and a declaration which represented the most robust and widely agreed upon human rights document to come from the international community. The conclusion reached by consensus was an agreement that there are certain fundamental, naturally endowed rights, that every member of the human species shares, thus solidifying the modern day conception of universal human rights.
There is still much friction between the universality and relativity of certain human rights, most notably female genital mutilation, but the historical record shows a persistent effort towards the continuation of finding areas of overlapping consensus, to strengthen, rather than undermine, the universality of human rights, because it is something all people and citizens, as members of the human race, can embrace and hopefully enjoy.
History has shown us what happens when we do not promote and protect these natural human rights and that is why the consensus amongst the international community on the continuation of developing and enforcing human rights is ever growing and increasing. Today we can see that regimes and governments who do not respect the international conception of human rights, will be ostracized, stigmatized, and in a growing number of cases, ousted by foreign intervention. Universal Human Rights may, in theory, be a bunch of culturally relative bologna, but the practically, that is, the implementation and enforcement of these human rights, has proven to be something that all nations are interested in striving towards and achieving. Will every state abandon its shield of sovereignty, be a ‘slave to international law, so that it can be free’ and safe? Will we overcome our culturally relative suspicions and reach a final consensus on the universality of our naturally endowed human rights? These are two of the major questions of our era and while the rational answer to both of these questions would appear to be an affirmative and optimistically hopeful ‘yes’, this answer is not guaranteed, as man has yet to prove that he is, indeed, as he is often thought to be, a rational creature. But I remain optimistically optimistic, since it is my opinion that morals and there subsequent laws are usually created by man to satisfy, not some truth, but a social purpose: to alter the irregularity, injustice, and sheer danger of man’s social environment, by crafting laws that promote peace and harmony, enforced by (ideally) a majority consensus, and protected and carried on by the next generation. This is a fundamental goal that all humans are interested in, regardless of their culture; a goal which all humans hope to one day achieve.