The Origins of Human Rights

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The human rights movement is concerned with the dignity and autonomy of all people. It is based on the assumption that every individual, irrespective of his or her status in society, has the right to life and to liberty. It aims to promote and protect these rights in the context of a global society with common political institutions, such as laws, courts, governments, executive branches, militaries, bureaucracies, police forces and public schools. It also seeks to promote and protect the right of individuals to freedom of expression, religion, thought, assembly and association, and to free and fair elections.

The origins of human rights lie in the doctrines of ancient Greece and Rome, notably the Stoics, who held that human conduct should be brought into harmony with, and in accordance with, immutable natural laws. This view is reflected in Sophocles’ play Antigone, in which the title character defies King Creon’s order not to bury her brother and insists that she must follow her father’s instructions in accordance with natural law.

This philosophy underlies most international treaties and declarations concerning human rights. It is also a key component of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a landmark international document that was produced during the aftermath of World War II. This document spelled out for the first time that everyone has rights which are universal, independent of their source in the practices, morality or laws of any particular nation or culture.

Some scholars have argued that this idea is unworkable because of the many differences in cultural practices and morals, which cannot be overcome by appeal to universalist principles alone. They have suggested that a more practical approach is needed. They have proposed that human rights be identified and recognised as such by a process of political negotiation, which allows for flexibility and compromise. This process has been a long and complex one, which has led to a number of different human rights conventions and agreements, including the United Nations Charter and the European Union’s Charter on Fundamental Rights.

Another argument is that there are certain rights which are so important and fundamental that they must be protected by all states, regardless of their current political systems. This approach is referred to as the “principal of equal treatment”. In principle, this means that all citizens should enjoy the same rights, including the right to life and the right to privacy.

A third argument for human rights concerns the role of the state. It asserts that a state has a responsibility to ensure the enjoyment of these rights by its citizens and that this obligation is binding. This involves a combination of laws, treaties, and goodwill – it requires a commitment to respect human rights, along with the willingness to abide by the international standards and treaties which have been established.

The protection of human rights has improved dramatically since the end of the 20th century, but more needs to be done. Accountability is a crucial element in this endeavour: if perpetrators of human rights violations are allowed to get away with their actions, they will not be deterred from committing them again in the future and others will be encouraged to do so.