52 ideas that changed the world: 34. Human rights

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the spotlight is on human rights:

Human rights in 60 seconds

Mohammed Ghani, Mohammed Zahir Khan and Mohammed Khilji are three of the 224 terrorist offenders currently being held in British prisons. What makes them different is that the government is rushing through legislation to keep them there.

Ghani, Khan and Khilji are all due for early release in March, but after a 20-year-old man was shot dead by police during a terror attack in Streatham last weekend, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is doing everything in his power to ensure that the three remain behind bars. 

The men committed acts of terror, ranging from sharing propaganda to threatening to kill police during a 999 call. But Johnson’s plans to keep them in prison could be a violation of their human rights, a complex and controversial concept.

Human rights straddle the boundary between moral principles and legal rights. The phrase itself originated as a way to describe “rights that belong to an individual or group of individuals simply for being human”, replacing the far more vague theory of “natural rights”.

Human rights are seemingly simple, dealing with unalienable rights that should never be violated. Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the Romanian-born American writer and activist Elie Wiesel (pictured above), a survivor of the Holocaust, argued that when human rights are abused “national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant”.

But human rights are more controversial than that. In the UK, human rights law repeatedly frustrated efforts to deport known Islamic fundamentalist Abu Hamza. Meanwhile, the torture and abuse of suspected terrorists – for example at Bagram prison in Afghanistan – has raised questions about observing the human rights of enemies, both real and perceived.

“Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is Martin Luther King’s oft-quoted phrase. In trying to keep Ghani, Khan and Khilji behind bars, the prime minister may soon reignite that debate.

How did it develop?

The phrase “human rights” is relatively new and was born out of the Second World War. It became mainstream after the foundation of the United Nations and the widespread adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Less contemporary precursors include Magna Carta, signed in 1215 by King John of England and inscribing the basic rights of his subjects into law. This was the most significant enumeration of individual rights until the Petition of Right, produced in 1628 by the English Parliament and sent to Charles I as a statement of civil liberties.

Philosophically, the US Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, put at its heart the themes of individual rights. The oldest written national constitution formalised American’s right to freedom of speech, religion, to keep and bear arms, to assemble and petition.

In 1791, American political activist Thomas Paine outlined theories of individual liberty in Rights of Man. Writing in defence of the French Revolution, which began in 1787, Paine posited that the revolution was a legitimate response to the failure of the French ruling class to protect the “natural rights” of citizens. 

The French Revolution was founded on the principles of “liberte, egalite, fraternite”, a phrase popularised by lawyer and statesman Maximilien Robespierre and now the national motto of France. Strikingly, however, the phrase did not feature in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen – the early human rights document set out by France’s National Constituent Assembly in 1789. 

Drafted in conjunction with US founding father Thomas Jefferson, the document put in writing the ideas that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, as well as liberty consisting of “anything which does not harm others”.

The declaration failed to account for the rights of women, prompting playwright Olympe de Gouges to pen the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791. In it, de Gouges sought to argue that “woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights”. However, the appeal saw her accused, tried and convicted of treason, becoming one of three women to be murdered during the post-revolution Reign of Terror.

The declaration drawn up in defence of the rights of men after the French Revolution would later influence the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the early months of 1939, British author H.G. Wells wrote to The Times, posing questions about the “war aims” of the allied forces. The letter generated considerable attention and was republished in the US at a time when the America First Committee – led by aviator Charles Lindbergh – was the largest anti-war movement in the country’s history. Such was the attention drawn by the first letter that Wells drafted a second, titled a “declaration of rights”.

Wells set out a series of liberties to which all people are entitled as a blueprint against the “totalitarian tyrannies with which we are at conflict”. This would go on to inform the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, which set out 30 universal human rights. 

Revelations of human rights abuses since, especially during the Vietnam War and the War on Terror, have seen questions raised in the late 20th and early 21st centuries about the “limitations of human rights”.

Writing in The Guardian, Eric Posner, professor at the University of Chicago Law School, argues: “We live in an age in which most of the major human rights treaties have been ratified by the vast majority of countries. Yet it seems that the human rights agenda has fallen on hard times.”

Women in the Islamic world lack equality, the Chinese totalitarian model increasingly deprives individuals of self-determination and political authoritarianism has gained ground in Russia, as well as Eastern Europe and South America.

“Westerners bear a moral responsibility to help poorer people living in foreign countries,” Posner writes. But, he adds, “the best that can be said about the human rights movement is that it reflects a genuine desire to do so”.

David Cole, professor in law and public policy at Georgetown University Law Center, echoes Posner’s argument, describing human rights, as we currently define them, as “quaint” in the face of repeated violations. Stephen Hopgood, a professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, has also argued that we are facing the “endtimes of human rights”.

The issue has also become muddied in the 21st century by the growing use of human rights legislation by enemies of the West to frustrate efforts to bring them to justice. The invoking of human rights in defence of figures such as the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza has seen mainstream newspapers like The Daily Telegraph run columns describing the “dreadful Human Rights Act”.

How did it change the world?

As the world became conscious of the nightmarish experience of persecuted minorities under the Nazi regime, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights embodied the outlook of the post-war order. 

As NPR’s Tom Gjelten notes, the agreement “testifies to the boundless idealism of the document’s drafters”. Following a global conflict, the attempted mass extermination of the Jewish people and the dropping of the first nuclear weapons on Japan, the document laid out plans for a “world of genuine peace and justice”.

However, the latter half of the century and the dawn of the 2000s has placed huge strain on the concept. At a time when countries violate human rights with impunity, “the truth is that human rights law has failed to accomplish its objectives”, Posner writes. 

Looking at the list of the original signatories, from the US to Iraq, the UK to Cuba, Posner’s observation is hard to dispute. Who among them can claim to have maintained a high regard for human rights – at home and abroad – since 1948?

Posner’s observation to some degree highlights a tension at the heart of human rights. In the face of numerous violations, the sub-heading of H.G. Wells’ original letter – “what are we fighting for?” – becomes more challenging.

As Labour Party politician and human rights lawyer Shami Chakrabarti says: “People do care about their own [rights]. It’s other people’s that are a bit more challenging.”


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