Human Rights in the West: History & Context
Although the origins and theories of human rights are yet to be settled, its European origins are hardly contested. One of the fundamental differences between the West and the East is exhibited in the language of the treaties and covenants on human rights. It is conceivable that had a document concerning humans been authored by the East, it would most likely read “Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities and Duties.” Notwithstanding the flavor of Euro-centrism that characterized them, the documents on human rights were well argued that it almost transcend cultural and civilizational boundaries. This universalism however masks serious inherent limitations. In order to have a better grasp of this matter, we will consider examining the origins, theories, and historical contexts that have led to the creation and adoption of the declarations and covenants on human rights.
Even the origins of the phrase “universal human rights” are more complex than we would like it to be. While the implied universalism is rooted in the culture of natural law theories; the notion of human rights is undoubtedly taken from the vocabulary of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. As illustrated by the selection from Thomas Aquinas, natural law was started as a rationalization of religious doctrines. After nearly three hundred years, the doctrine of natural law and natural rights had come out of its limited domain to be discussed by intellectuals from all denominational and intellectual orientation. The growing confidence in human reason has lead to the exploration of the topics of law and rights outside the traditional setting that was until then controlled by the religious establishment. Chief among the intellectuals of the seventeenth century was the English philosopher and thinker John Locke who is arguably the most influential natural law theorist of modern times. Locke argued that man, by nature, is entitled to certain rights such as life, liberty (freedom from arbitrary rule), and property. Locke’s writings which were in most part associated with the 1688 so-called Glorious Revolution stressed the fact that all these rights are self-evident and that governments exist to protect them. By the eighteenth century, humanist philosophers like Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had built a supreme status for reason on which they rallied to attack religious and scientific dogmatism, intolerance, censorship, and socio-economic controls. The ensuing effect is the establishment of powerful literary elite that brought about political and economic manifestos and declarations like the 1688 English Bill of Rights, the 1776 American Declaration of Independence, and the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
In all cases, these declarations of Natural Rights for Man was born in a milieu that was characterized by political oppression and absolutism that were criticized for centuries by the subscribers to the natural law theories. It is because of the extreme absolutism of governments that the declarations of rights were themselves worded and formulated in such militantly absolutist fashion. Being as such, these notions of rights would naturally conflict with each other, opening the door for strong criticism from both camps: the liberals and the conservatives at the same time. In England for instance, Edmund Burke and David Hume formed what can be seen—given their philosophical positions—as an unlikely alliance with the liberal Jeremy Bentham to attack the doctrine of natural rights. While the former camp attacked it for its potential to cause social confusion; the latter feared that such declarations and proclamations of natural rights would be conceived as alternatives to institutional legislation. By the 20th century, the assault upon natural rights had reached its peak. John Stuart Mill, an otherwise vigorous defender of liberty and individual rights contended that rights are essentially founded on utility. Others like Friedrich Karl von Savigny and Henry Maine emphasized the relative nature of rights as dependent on culture and the environment. Views that were intended to take away from the claim of universality of rights per se. The Utilitarian jurist John Austin argued for the notion of sovereignty as the basis for law. Sovereignty as argued by Austin could—and in fact it did in some circles—legitimizes the absolute power of monarchs and dictators. This very notion was exploited by authoritarian regimes and their supporters to argue for religious-based forms of governance or monarchies. Throughout these time periods, the debate on the nature of the rights of Man did not get resolved. It was not resolved whether human rights were to be viewed as divine, moral, or legal entitlements. Whatever the case might have been, the idea of natural rights as the sole justification for any political society was a real challenge to all forms of established political authorities. Simply put, the notion of natural rights did not accept all the existing theories of that time that ranged from the divine rights of kings to the pragmatic necessity of the stable political rule. Political regimes were—after the success of the doctrine of natural rights—justified only if they responded by satisfying the natural rights of the citizens. The current understanding of human rights is different from the formulation of the historical claim of natural rights. However, the roots of the former in the latter, and the continuity between the two cannot be easily refuted or dismissively discounted.
What is so ironic is the fact that, while such debate about natural rights of Man is underway, all the political powerhouses of Europe were engaged in systematic occupation of the third world countries in Asia and Africa. The natives of these communities were subjected to the most cruel and inhumane forms of treatments. From the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, almost every African nation lived under brutal occupation that violated every declarations and proclamation. Even as Germany was being singled out for the violation of human rights at home, England and France and other European nations continued their occupation and brutal practices. As late as the mid-fifties and early sixties for example, France was engaged in the systematic killing of civilians and freedom fighters in Algeria that left over one million and a half Algerians dead. The roots of suppression of any thing Western must be understood in this historical context where it became clear that the protections of life, freedoms, and liberties do not extend to “non-civilized” peoples and individuals.
While the United States administration was not directly involved in colonial adventures abroad, their record at home is just as brutal when we consider the treatment of Native Americans throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. An entire population was forced to relocate and live in reservations. These reservations were carved out of very hostile land that contained little or no resources that would support such huge mass of displaced peoples. Not only were the Native Americans deprived of their original lands, but their source of livelihood and their religious symbols were cruelly and systematically eliminated as was the case with the Midwestern Plains tribes whose members were relocated at times as far south as Oklahoma. Reportedly, when the settlers and the US army lost a war of forcefully taking over the Black Hills to use it for mining for gold, the retreating troops killed all the bison in the area, causing massive hunger and outrage since the Buffalo was not only the source of living for Native Americans, but also constituted a religious symbol for them.
Notwithstanding the practices of European governments outside Europe and the United States at home, the world community had managed to force the West to document in writing one of the most promising declarations. The fact that the forum is now outside the national boundaries, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first step towards the globalization of Western principles on the issue of human and peoples’ rights. However, before attaining that stage, the struggle to secure and safeguard basic rights in the West went through various stages. These stages can be identified by simply looking at the language of the documents that emerged from that era and from the historical context that exited then.
The first stage can be characterized as the revolutionary struggle that demanded freedoms. It started around the 18th century and consisted of civil and military uprisings that freed people of Europe and North America from the physical and mental limitations that were exerted by non-representative and oppressive rulers. The intellectual outcome of this era consisted of revolutionary negative proclamations that were indicative of the breaking away from a system and the ushering of an age of freedoms: freedom of opinion, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom from arbitrary detention, and freedom from interference in correspondence.
Subsequently, the revolutionary proclamation moved from the action theaters into the “academic” arena and forced thinkers to engage the claims of this generation intellectually. That move led to the second stage: the Proclamation Stage. At this phase, the freedoms that were demanded are now proclaimed as rights. These positively articulated rights were made absolute and universal. Every progressive state in Europe and North America had by now its own “Bill of Rights”.
After this achievement, comes the empowering stage which is the incorporation of the declarations into treaties, covenants, and national and international laws. This is the crucial stage as without it, human rights remain more or less a wish list.
What is of essence to this debate is that there is a vast gap between the realization of the need for acknowledging the so-called absolute rights and the actual implementation. The case can be made crystal clear by looking at one example: The right to food is mentioned in article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The World Food Conference in 1974 established the Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition. The first article of this document stipulates that “every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop fully and maintain their physical and mental faculties.” More than a quarter century later, the nearly one billion poor people around the world are getting hungrier and there appears to be no hope in sight to rectify the situation.
Similarly, for sometime now, the citizens of the world are more convinced now than any other time that protecting the environment is a collective responsibility as its decline will harm the quality of life of all living beings on the face of the earth. In a sense, the right to a clean and healthy environment ought to be considered a universal right as well. In fact, a conference on the environment held in Bonn in 1971 declared that humanity has a right to a healthy environment. Subsequently, in 1972 the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a “recommendation” suggesting the undertaking of a study to determine whether or not the right to a decent environment should be raised to the status of a human right. The debate of the topic pressed on leading to the adoption of statements regarding the environment in a number of domestic and international legal documents. Amongst many others for example, Spain, Portugal, and Peru have affirmed it expressly in their constitutions. Not so explicit reference to right to a healthy and balanced environment can also be found in the constitutions Poland, Hungary, Greece, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, the Peoples Republic of China, the U.S.S.R., Sri Lanka, and Bulgaria. Despite that, the politics of protecting economic interests of few nations continue to undermine efforts like these.
In short, there are enough reasons for optimism. It can be argued that the human rights movement gained considerable momentum when tragedies and brutalities were dominant. It is in the times of despair that the human rights champions rise to the challenge and bring about the best in humanity. Almost every achievement in the area of humanitarian law started with a dream… a dream that was triggered by a nightmare. These dreams are first articulated in the form of declarations then, through tireless campaigns, signed into binding treaties and covenants.