Human rights are an inescapable fact in the present world order. The term “human rights” refers to a broad spectrum of values or skills that are believed to strengthen human agency or safeguard human interests and are stated to be universal in nature, in some ways equally demanded for all people, present and future.
People throughout the world commemorate Human Rights Day every year on 10th December. United Nations General Assembly on this day in 1948, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The purpose of the day is to enhance the sociocultural well-being and welfare of a disadvantaged population worldwide. Such celebration makes aware people of human rights and highlights the issues related to human rights. It emphasises the efforts of the UN to bring about progress in the living conditions of human beings. It is a historic document that declares “the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being — regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. On the occasion of Human Rights Day, it is pertinent to look into the fascinating human rights journey and current challenges to the realisation of human rights throughout the world.
One can find the origins of the notion of human rights in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was believed that the natural law should be used to assess human behaviour and bring it into conformity with it. Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas in their writings show that at this time, and even during the middle ages, concepts of natural law focused more on the responsibilities than the rights of man. It legitimised slavery and serfdom contrary to the ideas of human rights as we have understood today — freedom (or liberty) and equality. Only after the middle ages did the concept of natural law becomes associated with natural rights.
From natural law to natural rights
Certain fundamental societal changes during 13th century were responsible for the conception of human rights as natural rights. The idea of natural law was changed from duties to rights during this period, owing to resistance to political and economic slavery, as well as religious intolerance, rulers’ blatant disregard for their duties under natural law. The teachings of Aquinas and Hugo Grotius, the 1215 Magna Carta, 1628 Petition of Right, and 1689 English Bill of Rights were signs of this change. They all backed up the increasingly common belief that people have some unalienable rights that are everlasting in nature.
Recognition of natural rights
The idea that natural law implies or denotes inherent rights in modern times was largely developed by 17th and 18th centuries thinkers like Hobbes, Descartes and Leibniz, Spinoza, Bacon and Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They aimed to identify and put into practice universally applicable laws controlling nature, people, and society, as well as the unalienable “rights of man”. This liberal intellectual ferment deeply impacted the western world during late 18th and early 19th century. The Bill of Rights that resulted from the Glorious Revolution in England served as the inspiration for the wave of revolutionary agitation especially in North America and France.
Thomas Jefferson written US Declaration of Independence proclaimed in 1776: “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.” Similarly in Europe, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted on 26-8-1789, stating: “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” and that “the aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man”.
Critics of natural rights
The notion of natural rights was most significantly challenged by influential intellectual and political thinkers as evident in the writing of Edmund Burke and David Hume and Jeremy Bentham. Hume claimed that natural law and natural rights are unreal philosophical entities, in line with Bentham. Even this attack on natural law and natural rights grew more ferocious and widespread in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite his vigorous defence of liberty, John Stuart Mill proclaimed that rights are ultimately founded on utility. Jurists like Friedrich Karl von Savigny, Sir Henry Maine stressed that a community’s distinctive cultural and environmental factors are what determine its rights. According to John Austin, “the command of the sovereign” is the only law. 20th century logical positivists maintained that only verifiable experience can establish truth and that moral judgments had no cognitive significance.
However, this critique of natural rights was unfounded, and the concept of rights persisted. The abolition of slavery, the implementation of labour-related legislations and rise of trade unions, growth of education, the universal suffrage movement were evidence of such recognition in 19th century.
With the fall of Nazi Germany, the idea of human rights was visualised in the international scenario and became the matter of concern to international community. Gruesome atrocities committed by the Nazi regime were officially authorised by Nazi laws and decrees. It convinced many that law and morality could not be grounded in any pure idealist, utilitarian, or consequentialist doctrine. Certain actions are absolutely wrong irrespective of the circumstances and authority; human beings are entitled to certain basic human rights and that must be respected by all.
The beginning of the universal and worldwide acknowledgement of human rights may be attributed to the second half of the 20th century. After the Holocaust and World War II, the United Nations was established in 1945 with the major goals of preserving international peace and security and fostering respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights. The UN Charter explicitly mentioned that “all member States pledged themselves to take joint and separate action for the achievement of universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”.
The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established the Commission with a particular mandate to work in the field of human rights. The Commission on Human Rights developed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in response to it. The UDHR was adopted as “a common standard of accomplishment for all peoples and all nations” by representatives of many civilisations. To provide protection to rights recognised by UDHR two covenants [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)] were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. These writings eventually came to be regarded as the foundational texts of the “International Bill of Human Rights,” together with the Universal Declaration and its accompanying protocols.
Realising human rights
Apart from setting the standard through international instruments and declarations, the UN also established an institutional mechanism for protecting and promoting human rights. The UN Commission on Human Rights, established as an ECOSOC subsidiary organisation, operated as the UN’s main policymaking body in the area of human rights from 1946 until 2006. During its first two decades, it concentrated on setting human rights standards and drafting several historically vital international human rights instruments. The Commission was explicitly given the power to handle cases of human rights violations starting in 1967, and soon after that it established complex mechanisms and processes to look into claims of human rights violations and otherwise keep an eye on how States were abiding by international human rights law.
Human Rights Council
In the early 21st century, the Commission on Human Rights was viewed as ineffective, partly because its membership included countries with poor human rights records. As a result, in 2006, the UN Human Rights Council took its position. UN Human Rights Council was established as a subsidiary intergovernmental body of the UN General Assembly. The promotion and defence of human rights around the globe needed to be strengthened, according to the Council. To this aim, it was required to discuss any human rights concerns and circumstances that needed its attention during the year, as well as to resolve and make recommendations about any abuses of human rights that were discovered.
The Council approved an “institution-building package” to direct its activity and set up its processes and procedures one year after it was founded. The Advisory Committee, the Council’s “think tank” for advice on thematic issues of human rights, and the complaint procedure, which gives individuals and civil society organisations standing to bring human rights violations to the Council’s attention, were among them. The universal periodic review mechanism evaluates the human rights records of every UN member State, including council members during their terms of membership.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
The UN organisation tasked with promoting and defending the human rights protected by international law is the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which was created by the UN General Assembly in 1993. It acts as a secretariat, providing the Human Rights Council and other UN entities dealing with human rights with administrative, logistical, and substantive support. It emphasises standard setting, monitoring, and implementation in order to achieve this.
The covenant also mandates the formation of a Human Rights Committee to examine reports provided by the State parties on the actions they have taken to implement the rights recognised in the covenant. The Committee may also react to claims made by one State party of the covenant that another State party not upholding its duties if those States have explicitly acknowledged the Committee’s competence in this respect. State parties that ratify the first optional protocol to the covenant also acknowledge the Human Rights Committee’s authority to take into account and respond to representations from people alleging to have experienced covenant violations. Similar authority exists inside the UN system for other treaty-based bodies to evaluate individual complaints in a quasi-judicial setting.
In addition to the ICCPR and ICESCR, other international human rights include 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; 1989 Convention on the Rights of Child, the 2002 Optional Protocol of the 1984 Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The world is witnessed for several challenges for realisation of human rights including poverty and global inequities, gender inequality discrimination, vulnerability of women, children, older persons and minorities, armed conflict and violence, impunity and democracy deficits. Human rights abuses including xenophobia, discrimination, arbitrary imprisonment, and censorship were recorded from all around the world during the COVID-19 epidemic. In past few years, human rights institutions reported that autocracy is dominant and democracy on the decline. It is evident from military takeovers in Myanmar, Sudan, Mali, and Guinea, and undemocratic transfers of power in Tunisia and Chad. Emergence of leaders with autocratic tendencies in some democratic countries also poses a challenge to the realisation of human rights.
Grave human rights violations occurred due to international and non-international armed conflicts including conflicts in Kosovo, Haiti, Afghanistan, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic. Some recent observations of Human Rights Council (HRC) are indicative of such human rights violations. Six generals in Myanmar’s military forces should be tried for war crimes in connection with the genocide against the Rohingya Muslims, according to a UNHRC report published in August 2018. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are accused of committing war crimes during the Saudi-led operation in Yemen, according to a UNHRC report of 2019. The arrest of three Egyptian human rights activists in November 2020 was denounced by the UN.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine was established by the UNHRC in March 2022 to look into human rights abuses and breaches of international humanitarian law during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The UN General Assembly passed a resolution suspending Russia from the HRC in response to abuses of human rights during the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 during its eleventh emergency extraordinary session. The HRC conducted a special meeting on 24-11-2022, to discuss the worsening state of women’s and children’s rights in Iran.
The theme of human rights is present throughout the policies and programmes of United Nations relating to economic and social affairs, development, humanitarian assistance, peace and security. Regional and domestic legal instruments not only recognised but also provide protection of human rights. Despite such arrangement, millions of people are deprived from basic means of substance and forced to live an undignified life. Human Rights Day is an occasion to unite efforts to enhance the sociocultural well-being and welfare of a disadvantaged population worldwide. Leaders of the world community should do more to stand up for human rights and a fair world.
† Associate Professor, Department of Law, Central University of Punjab, Punjab.