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An Historical Perspective On Human Rights
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Most scholars consider the Magna Charta (Latin for “Great Charter”), signed in England in 1215, to be the forerunner of the legal guarantees which exist today. King John of England, under heavy pressure from rebellious nobles, granted all English freemen certain rights “to be had and holden by them and their heirs …for ever.” At that time in history very few people in England were actually regarded as freemen, but it was a step in the right direction. Before the Magna Charta, any provisions for human rights were at the behest of the occasional benign ruler of the land.

More often than not rulers were prone to oppress their peoples using arbitrary authority that was only challenged when others wanted to seize the same powers for themselves. Efforts by peasants to win more economic freedom were ruthlessly suppressed. To this day in many lands, persons openly critical of government policy find themselves jailed or executed.

When American colonists began their struggle for freedom, they really just wanted the same basic rights as Englishmen that they thought they had been guaranteed since 1689. Only after repeated attempts to assert themselves had been rebuked did they proclaim independence, maintaining in the process 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.”

The purpose of government is “to secure these rights.” wrote Thomas Jefferson. Contained in his description of basic rights and their higher source was a concept that had been around since the days of ancient Greece and Rome – that of natural law higher than any law conceived by humanity. A country founded on those basic principles could be expected to write them into its basic laws and so it did. From the start of its history as a nation, the supreme law of the United States has been its Constitution, not the authority of any person.

Shortly after American independence was achieved, it was France’s turn. While England and its American colonies had spent two centuries experimenting with democratic government, France stuck to the old ways, preserving one of the most authoritarian monarchies in the world. When change came to France beginning in 1789, it was both sudden and violent. Though France went through various upheavals in the 1790s, until the republic was overthrown by Napoleon in the early 1800s, it maintained a “declaration of rights of man and the citizen,” spelling out the same right of people to determine their own government. It also affirmed some of the same guarantees as those given to American citizens, such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression and the right to property.

Fast forward to the 20th Century. In the aftermath of World War II a number of individuals tried to put the human race once and for all on a course that would guarantee all men their Human Rights. They first founded the United Nations in an effort to create a forum where different countries could resolve their differences. The people who created the UN knew that Human Rights were an essential element of world peace and charged a commission under the supervision of Eleanor Roosevelt to produce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When ratified it contained 30 provisions that all governments would share in common. Member nations readily subscribed to it.

It would be wrong to dismiss the Human Rights movement that emerged after World War II by pointing to all too frequent instances of human rights violations. There have been many triumphs when men have stood up for their human rights. For example, racial minorities in the United Stated through the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and others won considerable respect for their rights, an example repeated elsewhere in the world. The colonial empires which divided the world in 1948 and denied the right of self-determination to millions have been greatly reduced starting with India under the leadership of Gandhi.

The question remains, though, how do human rights become a reality for all? Part of the answer is that an understanding of human rights must permeate our culture. Youth for Human Rights International provides educational materials in the major languages of the world so that every people can have access to the knowledge of their basic Human Rights, and therein is a positive route to a world that recognizes the dignity of all humanity.


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