The History of the Human Rights

The idea that all people have certain rights just because they are people is a relatively new idea. At one time, people believed that kings, or rulers were gods. They had total power over the people and could do with them what they liked. They could even order people to worship them. Not only were kings above the law, they were the law and could change the law at their whim. As early as the year 1215, a British king, King John, agreed to a major change in the way he ruled. This came about because a group of barons who were large landowners were fed up with the arbitrary way King John exercised power over their property and lives. They drew up a list of demands. Among these were the rights to be free from unfair or unlawful detainment, imprisonment or exile. The king agreed. The document was the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta established a very important principle called the rule of law. This principle says that no one, not even a king, is above the law. It was the beginning of the idea that rulers have some responsibility to the people they rule. While this document was a very important milestone in the development of human rights, it was limited. The Magna Carta only gave rights to barons. It did not help the people who lived under the barons. They still had no rights.

It was not until the enlightenment of the 1700s that people began pressing for rights for the individual. In 1776, the people of the American colonies rebelled against the British king who denied them representation in the House of Commons and taxed them on luxury items. In their Declaration of Independence, the American people went to war on the basis of human rights doctrine. The famous words of the Declaration of Independence read:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Remember; however, that white Americans owned black slaves at that time, and for over 100 years after. It would be over a hundred years before women could vote or own property. Even when the Americans established their own representative government, only those who owned property could vote.

In 1789, shortly after the American Revolution, the French rebelled against the tyranny of King Louis XVI. The rebels forced the king to sign The Declaration of the Rights of Man. This statement guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of the press and basic rights to liberty, property, equality and security. Unfortunately, the new government did not follow this declaration. The King and thousands of other French citizens were killed by the guillotine. It was years before the battle cry of the revolution, “liberté, equalité, fraternité,” became a reality.

Over the next 150 years, many countries adopted human rights legislation. During this period, slavery was abolished. Women gained many rights, including the right to own property and the right to vote.

The next step taken in the development of human rights was global. Regrettably, it resulted from the loss of millions of lives. At the end of World War II, in 1945, the Holocaust shocked and appalled people all over the world. The Nazi government had systematically killed six million people, adults and children, solely because they were Jews. Many others were killed because they were homosexuals, physically or mentally challenged or because they opposed the Nazis. These people were taken from their homes and transported on cattle trains to concentration camps. They were starved, tortured, used in medical experiments and killed in gas chambers. It was barbaric. The numbers involved are emotionally and mentally overwhelming.

In response to this human catastrophe, 45 nations created an international organization that pledged to promote "universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms." That organization is the United Nations. It was founded in 1945. Most countries in the world now belong to the United Nations.

There are still many human rights violations around the world. Some countries have dictators who abuse the rights of citizens. Other countries, such as East Timor, continue to face violence and human rights violations as they struggle for independence. And long-standing civil wars, such as the one that continues to plague the Middle East, continue to be the source of countless human rights violations. Even here in Canada, treatment of our aboriginal people continues to raise many human rights issues as disputes over things such as treaty rights, taxation, land claims, hunting and fishing rights and self determination persist. However, recent history also provides us with some positive human rights milestones. In 1989 and 1990 the world saw the end of the totalitarian regimes of the Eastern Bloc, as those countries became open to democracy. The fall of the Berlin wall was symbolic of this change. Where once citizens of countries such as Czechoslovakia and the former U.S.S.R. could not leave their countries, and were subject to arbitrary imprisonment, people could now move freely across the borders and elect their own governments. About this time the world also saw the first steps to end the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1995, South Africa had its first multi-racial election in decades, ending 80 years of white-only rule.


Why is it important to learn about human rights?

The issue of human rights concerns all of us. In all parts of the world, people and governments continue to commit acts such as torture, arbitrary detention, extra-judicial killing, and other human rights abuses against individuals. It is important to have an understanding of basic human rights and freedoms in order to prevent abuses from taking place. Some governments attempt to define human rights on the basis of cultural differences. This distinction ignores the universal nature of human rights which recognizes that all human beings everywhere have common basic needs and should be treated with equal human dignity.

Individuals and governments which fail to uphold human rights standards are accountable to their people and to the world community. By understanding human rights, one can develop a sense of responsibility toward defending and advocating respect for human rights as well as expressing concern for those people whose human rights have been or are being violated. Human rights violations can only be remedied if one realises his or her basic ‘ rights and is willing to work for the promotion and protection of the human rights of oneself and of others.

Human rights education enables individuals and groups to become aware of the universal standards set forth in internationally recognised human rights instruments and increases understanding of both the personal and communal nature of human rights. Human rights thus become relevant to people’s relationships with each other as well as with the state and other entities. It is only through the realisation of human rights that social justice and human freedom can be achieved.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in the wake of the second world war, aims to ensure respect for human rights in all pans of the world. Since then, substantial efforts have been made to promote and protect human dignity and human rights. However, many people and governments continue to violate human rights resulting in barbarous acts against mankind.

Governments are obliged, under international law, to act as the protectors of universal human rights.

The history of human rights is a long one with its roots in many individual struggles for freedom and equality in different parts of the world. Its principles can also be found in most of the world’s religions and philosophies. The idea of human rights, therefore, pre-dates the United Nations, yet the creation of this international body represented the formal recognition of the importance of human rights in the world.

The area of human rights does not refer merely to violations. Human rights are becoming incorporated into many aspects of life; a type of social contract that fulfils people’s aspirations to live in dignity and freedom. Human Rights are also about the prevention of the misuse of power. The real protection of civil society can only come from its own creators: the people. People want to know that they are in full control of their lives and that they are recognized as unique individuals within society.

As the 20th century draws to a close, human rights in the world are confronted with many serious challenges and threats. Despite the many legal instruments and international mechanisms set up to ensure respect for human rights, shocking violations continue to take place in all parts of the world. Human rights are not a kind of miraculous cure for all the world’s ills; it is dependent on the people themselves to respect human dignity and work actively to end human suffering.

What are Human Rights?

 Human rights can be defined generally as those rights which are inherent in our nature and without which we cannot live as human brings. They are rights which every human being is entitled to enjoy and to have protected. Human rights and fundamental freedoms allow us to develop fully and use our human qualities and to satisfy our spiritual and other needs.

Human rights are a human creation. They grow out of the feeling of injustice which human beings experience when their humanity is abused or denied. They are based on mankind’s increasing demand for a life in which the inherent dignity and worth of each human being will receive respect and protection. Human rights introduce the idea of justice in the natural order of the world, thereby giving human existence a higher sense and purpose.

Human rights are universal moral rights that should be respected in the treatment of all men, women, and children. These are also called natural rights and they belong to people simply because they are human. They do not have to be earned, bought or inherited. People are equally entitled to them regardless of their race, sex, color, language, national origin, age, class or religious or political beliefs. The underlying idea of such rights exists in some form in all cultures and societies. People still have human rights even when the laws of their own countries do not recognize or protect them.

Human rights affect society as a whole. The denial of human rights creates conditions of social and political unrest, sowing the seeds of violence and conflict within and between societies and nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens with the declaration that recognition of the equal rights of all members of the human family ‘is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’.

Human rights are enshrined in internationally recognised laws such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration and various other covenants, conventions and declarations are created by international bodies such as the United Nations and they make up a body of “law” that has moral and sometimes binding force on nations.


On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was created for the people of the world, affirming that all people are born equal in dignity. It was one of the first major achievements of the United Nations in the field of human rights. The Universal Declaration was drafted in the wake of World War 11 as a protest against the terrible atrocities which had occurred during the war and to help ensure that they would not be repeated. Each year on 10 December, the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration is observed internationally as Human Rights Day.

The Universal Declaration states that human rights are ‘the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’ The UDHR laid down the basic hopes and needs common to all of humanity. It recorded the wishes not only of people from countries which had already reached a certain economic standard of living, but also the rights of people in countries where millions of human beings were still weighed down by oppression, poverty and lack of adequate education.

The UDHR was intended to be a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations.’ It has 30 articles which include civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, and fundamental freedoms to which every human being is entitled.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN. At that time the UN had 56 members; 48 voted in favour, none against and 8 members abstained. The UDHR is not a treaty or a binding legal document. It is, rather, a declaration - a statement of intent or principle. Under the UN Charter, member states promise to take joint and separate actions to promote universal respect for the observance of human rights. There is therefore a strong moral expectation that member states will respect the spirit of the UDHR and follow its provisions.

The UDHR is also important because:

It is used as a standard of behaviour and as a basis for appeals calling on governments to observe human rights. It has been made into law by several global and regional treaties or covenants”, and by legally binding agreements and contracts between individuals, groups and countries. It has influenced the constitutions, laws and court decisions of many nations and international organisations.




In 1966 the rights enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights were divided into two covenants - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The Covenants define in more detail most of the rights set out in the UDHR and deal with some additional rights.

The Covenants are treaties whose States Parties have formally agreed to abide by their provisions and the rights they recognise are expected to be law in those States. The ICCPR is considered to focus on individuals’ rights and the obligations are meant to be discharged as soon as a State becomes party to the Covenant. The ICESCR is drafted more in terms of communal rights and states’ duties, and the Covenant recognises that full realisation of these rights may have to be achieved progressively over a period of time.

Civil and Political Rights

Under the heading of Civil and Political Rights, all governments are to protect the life, liberty and security of their citizens. They should guarantee that no one is enslaved and that no one is subjected to torture or to arbitrary arrest and detention. Everyone is entitled to a fair trial. The right to freedom of thought, expression, conscience and religion is to be protected. These give people the freedom to think and to have access to information, the freedom to act and to choose what to do, and freedom to join in the political life of their community and society.

Articles 3 to 21 of the Declaration set forth the civil and political rights to which all human beings are entitled, including:

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Under the heading of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, all governments are expected to work progressively to improve the living conditions of their citizens. For example, they should try to guarantee the right to food, clothing, housing and medical care, the protection of the family and the right to social security, education and employment. They are to promote these rights without discrimination of any kind. These provide people with protection against having the basic necessities of life taken away from them.

Articles 22 to 27 of the Declaration set forth the economic, social and cultural rights to which all human beings are entitled:

Environmental and Development Rights

These are sometimes referred to as the ‘third generation’ of rights.  This is a somewhat misleading characterization as the right of all peoples to self-determination and to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development is protected in article  1 of both the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Economic, Social  and Cultural Rights. As such, these rights are inalienable from the other  “sets” of rights.

However, it is true that these group-based rights were actively discussed and specifically recognised and developed only in more recent years. The right to development was first recognised by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1977 and was enshrined by the General Assembly in the 1986 Declaration on the Rights to Development. Environmental rights include the right to live in an environment that is clean and free from pollution and protected from destruction.

Universality of Human Rights

The principle of universality is fundamental to the understanding of human rights- i.e. that human rights apply equally to each and every human being, regardless of the, culture in which they live. Yet it is heavily disputed, even rejected, by certain governments and movements who advocate ‘cultural relativism” - ie. that rights and rules about morality depend on cultural context and therefore necessarily differ throughout the world.

Unfortunately, cultural relativism is often used as an argument to justify the failure to respect certain international standards of human rights. For example, proponents of the ‘full belly thesis’ argue that individual civil and political rights are a luxury for the starving masses and can only he granted once the primary needs of food and health have been satisfied.

Arguments in favour of one or the other of the ‘sets” of rights ignore the indivisibility of human rights. This means that respect for civil and political - rights cannot be, divorced from the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural’ rights. Authentic economic and social development cannot exist without the individual right to participate in the political process.

The universality of human rights was reaffirmed in the Vienna Declaration adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. The Declaration states definitively that ‘The universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question” and that ‘All human rights are universal, indivisible, and interdependent and interrelated”. This includes the broader;’ range of rights including’ development and environmental rights and rights indigenous peoples.

“Individual Rights” And “Collective Rights”

Human rights are designed to protect not only the individual but also individuals as members  ‘of groups or communities. It is therefore important to understand the relationship between ‘individual rights” and “collective rights”.

A right may be ‘collective’ by virtue of the way in which it is exercised or by virtue of its holder. There are rights and freedoms that presuppose the existence of other individuals, groups and communities with which and within which they are exercised. Mention may be made, by way of example, of freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, the right to organise and the right to free elections. These are rights with a collective dimension by virtue of the way in which they are exercised.

Another distinguishing factor is the holder of a right. Whereas individual rights are rights of human beings considered in their individual essence, collective rights construed in this sense would be rights of groups or of communities  which group individuals together. The recognition of certain group rights is essential for the self-fulfilment of the individual as a social being and for the achievement of an effective and genuine universality of human rights as rights of each and every individual without exception.

“Collective’ rights and individual human rights are both complementary and mutually exclusive. They are complementary because an individual cannot be free if he lives in an oppressed group or population. But the two categories of rights may also be mutually exclusive, for how can the conflicts that are always possible between them be settled?

To recognize the rights of groups is to maintain that such rights must be capable of performing their function for the individual’s benefit if the individual is to be a full human being. The rights of the groups are nothing else than the right of the individual to receive from groups the means he needs for his self-fulfilment. Since the group derives its own rights from serving the individuals who compose it, it has no rights against the rights of the individual.


There are two main UN bodies dealing with human rights: the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. There are also a number of human rights committees, working groups and special rapporteurs.

The UN Commission on Human Rights

This body was established in 1946 with 18 member countries.  The membership has increased over the years to its current total of 53 nations. The 53 member countries are elected for three year terms by the UN Economic and Social Council: 15 members come from Africa; 12 from Asia; 5 from Eastern Europe; 11 from Latin America and the Caribbean States; and 10 from Western Europe and other States (including USA, Canada and Australia).

The Commission is the central UN body responsible for promotion and protection of human rights. Its terms of reference are extensive; it may deal with any matters relating to human rights. The Commission considers and adopts resolutions on a wide range of human rights issues and some country-specific situations, makes studies, drafts international instruments setting human rights standards, and reviews recommendations and studies prepared by the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.

The Commission meets annually in Geneva for six weeks, beginning in late January or early February. Its meetings are public, except when it meets in closed sessions for several days to discuss the “ 1503 procedure” (the confidential procedure for complaints about alleged human rights violations).  During the public meetings, governments which are not members of the Commission and non-governmental organisations which have been granted consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council may observe proceedings from the meeting room and make written and oral statements concerning issues on the agenda.

The Commission is a subsidiary of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to which it reports annually. ECOSOC operates under the authority of the UN General Assembly and reports annually to that body. The Commission’s annual report to ECOSOC is a public document which summarises the results of the session and includes the text of all adopted resolutions.

During recent years, the Commission has discussed subjects including  (but not limited to): human rights situations in various countries, self-determination, torture, ‘disappearances’, capital punishment, detention for exercising the right to freedom of expression, religious intolerance, rights of the child, migrant workers, the role of youth in the protection and promotion of human rights, and protection of human rights defenders.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the UN official with principle responsibility for UN human rights activities. The first High Commissioner took office in April 1994, and the current High Commissioner, selected in June 1997, is Mrs Mary Robinson from Ireland. The High Commissioner works, through the Centre for Human Rights, to promote and protect human rights in the field and provides technical, financial and educational support.

The UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities

This Sub-Commission is composed of 26 members nominated by governments and elected to four-year terms by the UN Commission on Human Rights. In contrast to the Commission, the Sub-Commission members are elected to serve as independent experts rather than to represent their government’s policies. Despite its official title, the Sub-Commission deals with a wide range of human rights topics. It debates and adopts resolutions on human rights issues and some country situations, carries out studies, drafts international instruments, and makes recommendations to the Commission.

The Sub-Commission meets annually in Geneva for four weeks, beginning in early August. Its meetings are public, except for the several days when it meets in closed sessions to discuss the – “1503 procedure”. During public meetings government representatives and non-governmental organisations which have consultative status with ECOSOC may be in the meeting room as observers and may make written and oral statements concerning issues on the agenda.

The Sub-Commission submits a public report annually to its parent body, the UN Commission on Human Rights. That report summarises the results and includes the text of all adopted resolutions.

Human Rights Committees

The following six international human rights treaties are each monitored by a committee of independent experts. The Committee monitors the extent to which each of the States Parties (figures given are as at December 1996) are adhering to their treaty obligations and they may be required to report to the committee on human rights observance in their territory.

Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are envoys entrusted with the politically sensitive and sometimes dangerous task of compiling information on violations in a specific country or of a certain type. Appointed as individuals rather than as Government representatives, special rapporteurs gather facts, maintain contact with local groups and Government authorities, conduct on-site visits when Governments permit and make recommendations on how human rights institutions might be strengthened

Working groups and special rapporteurs are also appointed to conduct ‘thematic’ studies on issues such as torture, religious intolerance, arbitrary detention, summary or arbitrary execution and the sale of children and to take action in instances of abuse failing within that classification.


What are NG0s?

A non-governmental organisation (NGO) is any local, national, or international citizens’ group (i.e. not part of a government) which does not work for profit. This simple definition also means that organisations under the NGO label have an extremely broad range of functions. NG0s work in fields as diverse as law, the environment, refugees, human rights and disarmament. They may work to influence government policy, to provide technical or medical assistance, to conduct research, and or to educate or train others in the community.

Over the past decade the role of NG0s in local and international affairs has grown tremendously, reflecting a desire on the part of citizens to influence both their own lives and to take global responsibility for their world. Because of their flexibility, NG0s provide a unique channel through which ordinary citizens can participate in decisions which they feel affect their lives.

The work of publicising human rights violations and putting pressure on offending governments often falls to NG0s.

At the international level, NG0s such as Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch (with its divisions Africa Watch, Americas Watch, Asia Watch, Helsinki Watch and Middle East Watch) conduct on-site investigations, disseminate detailed reports and wage advocacy campaigns in international and domestic forums.

Operating with far less public awareness and physical protection than their transnational counterparts are domestic human rights organisations, which, where possible, monitor the actions of their respective governments.


 NGOs are independent and therefore willing to take risks in areas which governments and intergovernmental organisations consider politically sensitive. Mr. Garcia-Sayan of the UN Working Group on Disappearances commented, “...Those who hold human rights above all other concerns are the NG0s  ... They are the fuel and the lubricant which allow the [UN human rights] machine to function and speed the working up.”

NG0s have, by their very nature, a freedom of expression, a flexibility of action and a liberty of movement which enable them to complement the role of the United Nations in the promotion and protection of human rights.  At the 1945 San Francisco meetings in which the United Nations charter was drawn up and signed, 42 NG0s were invited to participate. They presented draft texts for the Charter, parts of which were eventually incorporated, including article 71: ‘The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organisations…” This statement laid the foundation for co-operation between the UN and NO0s.  71e Council granted consultative status to a limited number of NG0s which means that these NG0s can participate in some debates and occasionally place items on the agenda.

It is probably “in the field’ that the presence of NO0s began to be felt most strongly. Specialised agencies and bodies such as the UN Development Programme and the UN Commissioner for Refugees realised early on that NG0s offered them crucial resources and expertise. For example, without the co-operation of humanitarian organisations such as CARE and Medicines Sans Frontier (Doctors Without Borders) it would have been virtually impossible to meet the needs of refugees fleeing war.

Many of these specialised agencies have their own relationships with NG0s; they can co-ordinate NGO efforts, provide funds for NGO projects, or even receive funds from NG0s for their own programmes. The co-operation of NG0s has also furthered the goals of the UN in areas such as disarmament, human rights, education, the environment and science.

During the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro the broader participation of NG0s in addressing global issues was officially acknowledged. Over 1500 organisations were accredited to participate in the conference. In this and subsequent international conferences such as the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna), the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo), the World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing), NG0s have influenced the agendas and, hence, the laws resulting from these discussions.

In short, NG0s participate in the UN system in four ways:

They serve as important watchdogs of the UN; observing, criticising and reporting on its role.



In some circumstances, the UN can receive communications from individuals who have information about human rights violations and who have tried without success to obtain satisfaction within the country concerned. Three UN treaties provide this possibility:

The Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - allows a person who claims to he a victim of any of the rights set out in the ICCPR to lodge a complaint provided that the State complained of is party to both the ICCPR and its Optional Protocol. The Human Rights Committee, established under the ICCPR, will consider such communications together with any information submitted by the concerned State and can then make its views known on whether the Covenant has been respected.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination - allows an individual, or group of individuals, to lodge a complaint with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stating that their individual or group rights under the Convention have been violated. Again, this is possible only if the State complained of is a party to the Convention and has declared that it accepts the optional complaint procedure.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment - allows, where a State Party has so accepted, an individual to complain to the Committee against Torture that she or he is a victim of a violation by that State Party.

In addition, anyone or any group in the world who feels that they have been prevented from exercising their human rights may take their case to the UN even when it is not covered by a UN treaty. Such complaints are dealt with by the Commission on Human Rights under the ‘1503’ procedure. A copy of the complaint is sent to the government concerned (with the complainant’s name withheld unless otherwise agreed) which may submit a reply. The case is also sent confidentially to the Human Rights Commission and Sub-Commission and the complaint and any reply is considered by a working group of the Sub-Commission. Where a consistent pattern of gross violations is revealed, the Commission may carry out a thorough study or appoint a special committee or rapporteur to investigate.