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The History of Human Rights

This article was written for Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre's blog in celebration of Human Rights Day: 10th December 2014

This article intends to take you on a journey through the history of human rights, providing interesting facts about the legal instruments that protect our most fundamental liberties. It does not aim to provide legal analysis. It is, simply, a celebration of my human rights, your human rights and everybody’s human rights. It is an appreciation of human rights, which ‘are [universal and] premised on the inherent dignity of all human beings whatever their frailty or flaws.’[1]

Britain’s Magna Carta is a fitting first call in this human rights time travelling mechanism. The ‘great charter’ was initially enacted in 1215 but was drastically altered in the following years. Much of the original charter, however, has now been overruled but many of its fundamental principles are now enshrined in numerous human rights instruments. Values from the Magna Carta can be found in the United States Bill of Rights (1791), Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). This includes the concept that everyone is subject to the law. The Magna Carta also introduced the very basics of legal systems around the world as it states that:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

It soon becomes apparent that some of the fundamental rights that we take for granted date back to the Magna Carta and its revised versions. The United States Bill of Rights is no different in that it also provided an elaborative notion of liberties that are relied upon today. The Bill of Rights protects rights that are respected in constitutions around the world and contained in numerous international human rights instruments. Freedom of speech, religion, and of assembly and to petition is now respected worldwide. It also gave birth to key constitutional principles such as the prohibition unreasonable search and seizure, cruel and unusual punishment and compelled self-incrimination. The federal government is prohibited from depriving any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law that are fundamental human rights around the world.

The Declaration of Independence (1776) is equally significant. The Declaration, a means of breaking away from the British Empire, placed much emphasis on individual rights and the right of revolution to which many American’s hold value. These themed have dispersed internationally, and had particular influence on the French Revolution.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) was adopted after the abolishment of the absolute monarchy and the birth of a republic. The Declaration, considered the first step towards a French constitution, guaranteed, to all citizens, the rights to ‘liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.’ It also extends itself to explaining the concept of human right and, in fact, law in general as it states that ‘the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights. The law, as explained in the Declaration, is an “expression of the general will,“ and aims to promote equal rights and to only prohibit “actions [that are] harmful to the society.’ This placed equality, human rights and control over power at the centre of society and became hugely influential to human rights mechanisms around the world.

Human rights were being declared around the world. This, however, did not stop the atrocities of the World Wars that saw so many treated inhumanly. Action was taken to help ensure that they were never repeated as delegates from fifty countries met in San Francisco in the April of 1945. Their aim was to create an international body with the purpose of promoting peace and preventing conflict in the future. The Charter came into force on the 24th October 1945 and gave birth to the new United Nations (“UN” hereafter) organisation; a date celebrated yearly that has become United Nations Day.

The UN Human Rights Commission was created in 1946 and, although replaced in 2006 by the Human Rights Council, remains a key part of human rights history. The Commission, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, a fundamental human rights advocate and the United States delegate, drafted, introduced and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) on December 10, 1948. The Declaration attracted the world’s imagination and was considered the ‘international Magna Carta for all mankind’ given that it compiled 30 articles of human right. This was revolutionary as it was the first instance of human rights being assembled in this way. It sets out, in the preamble and Article 1, that all human beings are born free and enjoy equal dignity and rights, including freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear.

More specific UN human rights conventions were born out of the success of the UDHR. Such conventions often protect minorities and those who are most vulnerable to defend those who are most at risk. Significant examples include the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The realisation that particular social groups require certain protection in order to achieve equality is a step forward from universal rights. Universal rights, however, remain as the fundamentals of society. More specific rights, on the other hand, protect minorities and the vulnerable from discrimination. Domestic anti-discrimination laws that play a similar role have mirrored this approach.

The European Convention of Human Rights (“ECHR”) illustrates two further developments: individual court hearings and the emergence of regional human rights instruments. The ECHR came into force on 3 September 1953 after being drafted by the newly formed Council of Europe (“CoE””). All member states are signatories to the Convention and new members should ratify it at the earliest opportunity.[2] It is hugely influenced by the UDHR as it adopted similar rights. It was also enacted with the same ambitions as the UDHR; to avoid the atrocities of the world wars from being repeated. It protects 21 rights, though not all are enforceable. The key rights include the right to life, freedom from torture and inhuman treatment, privacy and liberty. This represents a development from the UDHR in that it has a court in which individuals can bring a case once they have exhausted domestic options. This is different from the UN procedures that often involved reporting from selected non-governmental organisations and the observance of specialist UN committees. In the UN, reports are written explaining the member state’s compliant and contravening behaviours and advice as to how to make amends. This is, however, often ignored by states. Individual complaints and remedies provide for a more intimate solution. The ECHR is also a development as it is an example of a regional treaty. Regional treaties on human rights appear globally and include examples such as the CoE’s Social Charter, the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and Asian Human Rights Charter.

Human rights have enjoyed gradual development in the last one hundred years. These progressions are under threat and human rights in Europe face a bleak future. Failures of the welfare systems and a rise in right-wing parties have seen citizens question the nature of human rights and are asking for reform. Many simply lack a human rights education and a well-informed opinion. The rise of the right-wing also threatens international and supra-national human rights as they seek more domestic independence. Much emphasis has been placed on the importance of human rights in the last decade and it is hoped that the reasoning for their introduction will be remembered, ensuring a safe passage through this difficult times. Human rights are fundamental and will play a vital role in the protection of the individual until the end of time. Let us, in this month of joy and reflection, celebrate and appreciate OUR human rights.

[1] P (by his litigation friend the Official Solicitor) (Appellant) v Cheshire West and Chester Council and another (Respondents) and P and Q (by their litigation friend the Official Solicitor) v Surrey County Council (Respondent) [2014] UKSC 19 at [36] per Baroness Hale

[2] Council of Europe (1994), Resolution 1031 on the honouring of commitments entered into by member states when joining the Council of Europe.

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