In the analysis of the growth of human rights over the centuries in last week’s column, we established that human rights in its current form and designation showed that it has been with humanity since Adam.
My sincere apologies to the adherents of minority religions but, in my defence, Adam is portrayed as the father of mankind by the two most dominant religions on the planet: Christianity and Islam.
This is because the central themes which underpin the concept, such as non-discrimination, equality, fairness, justice, respect for human dignity, freedom from torture and inhuman treatment, have all variously featured prominently in ways of governing, even though the term human rights has not been specifically deployed in their designation.
We traced the emergence of human rights through the dominant ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Babylon, Byzantine, Romano-Greco etc., to the birth of the Magna Carta in 1215, where the English barons forced the monarchy in England to be accountable to subjects in England.
This gradual but inexorable growth of human rights continued and was particularly prevalent and visible during the 17th and 18th centuries, spawning several revolutions during this era.
In 1776, the American Declaration of Independence, which advanced certain fundamental rights, such as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, made its grand appearance. Close on the heels of this epochal moment in the human rights revolution came the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789.
This groundbreaking human rights charter, which was enacted by the French constituent assembly, established that certain rights were ‘natural and inalienable’.
Some of these rights highlighted in the charter included freedom, ownership, equality, freedom from despotism and authoritarianism, etc.
Most of these emerging rights could be attributed to the work of influential Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke, Rousseau and Montesquieu.
These ideas and human rights themes, which were pregnant in the writings of these philosophers, no doubt, influenced the motto of modern France — Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite — which, at its basic meaning, reinforces the notion that all men and women are born free and equal in rights.
Following on from that, the 19th and 20th centuries further witnessed advances in human rights development, with the emergence of major groundbreaking reforms like the proliferation of political rights and the abolition of slavery, to name just a few.
One notable setback which afflicted the development of human rights was the concept of sovereignty of nations.
This expressed itself in the notion that countries were sovereign, and as such, the political authorities could, by and large, govern their territories as and how they deemed fit.
The principle of non-interference in the affairs of other countries was at the heart of this.
The onset of World War II and the massive atrocities and human rights violations, which the war brought in its wake, reminded the world of the inadequacy of the concept of sovereignty in the global protection of rights.
In particular, the atrocities of the Nazi regime in the massacre of Jews and communists, as well as those committed by the Japanese, galvanised the world and inspired the creation of an international body to monitor and guard the ‘peace’ of the world, culminating in the setting up of the United Nations (UN), which came into existence after the end of World War II in 1945 and was the creation of an effective international organisation built on a system of collective security, with strong enforcement powers.
The writer is a lawyer.