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From Hammurabi to the Patriot Act

A History of Human Rights

In the wake of World War II, the United Nations General Assembly compiled and adopted a document called “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (UDHR). The day of its adoption, December 10, 1948, became known internationally as “Human Rights Day.” But over the next several decades, the declaration could do little to actually prevent widespread abuse against human rights throughout the world, despite the best efforts of the United Nations. Millions of people have had their supposedly inviolable rights as humans more than violated—they have died due to inhumane actions. Civilizations and societies have long addressed the question of human rights, but with great variation in application and entitlement. The history of human rights is a long examination of the question of what is “natural” about the human condition and, by extension, what is right. Human rights, broadly speaking, should be inalienable and universal—but what are those rights, and to whom do they really apply?

Early Civilization B.C.—The Foundation

Human rights in the early civilizations of both the East and the West were composites of various philosophies that served a people’s social and cultural contexts. Both religious and secular conceptions of civilization determined the laws that dictated early human rights. The primary forerunners of civilization, namely agriculture and the warehousing of food, allowed for humans to stay settled and increase in population, leading to advances in civilization as settlements turned into cities.  Civilization spread outward from ancient Mesopotamia taking and evolving the components of the Western tradition, including the earliest tenets of human rights.

ten commandments The Ten Commandments are among the best-known early documents dictating good behavior The Code of Hammurabi from about 1800 B.C. is often cited by historians for its foundational place in the Western tradition of human rights. Two hundred eighty-two mostly rational clauses governed Babylonian existence and were rooted in “eye for an eye” justice. Of course, there was great disparity between judgment on nobility and judgment on slaves, but the document attempted to rid society of the violence of primitive tribalism left over from precivilization, “savage” human existence.

Among the most famous texts that shaped human behavior in the ancient world was the Hebrew Torah’s Ten Commandments, later part of the Christian Old Testament. The specific commandments attempting to discourage anti-social behavior are:

  1. Honor your mother and father.
  2. You shall not murder.
  3. You shall not steal.
  4. You shall not bear false witness.
  5. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

In addition to the Ten Commandments, the Old Testament lent the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, among other documents, to the history of good behavior and evolving human rights.

By 800 B.C., the rise of Grecian city-states with a focus on the rights of the (free) individual established an ideal atmosphere for Greek thinkers to develop some of the most sophisticated ideas the world had yet seen (Lewis). Plato is among the foremost of ancient Greek philosophers who developed theories of existence that included some of the basic tenets of human rights, emphasizing individual virtue to benefit the common good. Stoicism borrowed heavily from Plato and Socrates when defining a cosmopolite, meaning “citizen of the world.” Cosmos, meanwhile, is the overarching order of the universe within which all humans are moving together in common humanity and, according to Greek philosopher Zeno of Citrium, should not be divided by laws (Ishay).

As the Greeks waned and the Roman Empire grew and came into contact with unique cultures throughout the Mediterranean, the republic was obliged to strike relationships with people who held very different perceptions of the world. Borrowing from the Greek philanthropia, the Romans adopted a system of humanitas, which focused on a cultivated and educated society driven to do good. Most importantly, the philosophy rejects outward violence toward any other human being (Ishay). The question of slavery under the Roman Empire, like slavery in any civilization, complicates the question of membership in the human race, but the fundamentals of human rights and duties, like those laid for out for Roman citizens in “The Twelve Tables” from 450 B.C., were nevertheless in place.

From the beginning, basic rights and duties of citizens would become central to the drafting of any local or universal human rights ethic. The belief in a sympathetic existence is a common theme throughout the early history of human rights. But the value of brotherhood, in particular, is fundamental to early religious texts, including both the Christian New Testament and the Muslim Qu’ran.

First Millennium A.D.—The Rise of Faith

sermon mount The record of Jesus Christ's sermons is a significant contributor to human rights The birth of Christ and the record of his “Sermon on the Mount” (of Beatitudes) in the New Testament are key religious texts of the early first millennium in the Western tradition. For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew is the primary interpretation of Mosaic Law, meaning the Gospel is a record of Jesus’ understanding of the Ten Commandments (Lewis). Christian universalism explicitly preached that its adherents love their neighbors and endowed all human beings with the potential for virtue and moral equality.

Originating in the seventh century, the 114 surahs (chapters) of Islam’s Qu’ran continued the religious tradition of tolerance in the history of human rights. Believed to have been revealed to Mohammed by God, the Qu’ran guides its followers toward justice, tolerance, and solidarity, and it shares single deity monotheism as well as an ethic of universalism with Judaism and Christianity: “O mankind! We created you…that ye may know each other, not that you may despise each other” (Surah 49:13, quoted in Ishay). In all of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, there are questions of religious tolerance among faiths and variations in the universality of rights in practice, especially with respect to slaves, women, homosexuals, and each other, but the basic principles of modern human rights are nevertheless laid out (Ishay).

Renaissance and Reformation

Jon E. Lewis’ A Documentary History of Human Rights calls the era following the fall of the Republic of Rome “The Age of Faith” because the Church of Rome survived and spread across much of Europe. The church continued to spread virtually unimpeded until the East-West Schism of 1054 divided medieval Christianity along geographical and ecclesiastical divides. Western Roman Catholicism and Eastern Greek Orthodoxy took root and spread independently and was only the first of many divisions in Christianity.

Over the next few centuries, the Western world experienced a growth in urban population and an intellectual revival that helped drive a transition from the High Middle Ages in to Renaissance. The era, however, was troubled by the vicious series of Crusades attempting to “free” Muslim-controlled Jerusalem. There was further violent religious persecution at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. It was a period of extreme religious prejudice largely rooted in Christian fear and intolerance. But such intolerance and acts of violence would prompt reformers to encourage change based upon a return to what they perceived to be the central truths of the Gospels. Such change would reshape the Western tradition not only in the Old World, but by the fifteenth century, began to broaden its reach. European conceptions (and restrictions) of human rights extended into New Worlds, as European conquest almost always violently suppressed indigenous practices and stripped native rights.

Determining absolute conceptions of human rights was never an easy task. Sir Thomas More’s canonical Utopia from 1516 suggests an ideal world where men and women have access to free education and freedom from religious and economic oppression (Lewis). Renaissance ideals like those suggested in Utopia emerged in a more secular, republican atmosphere that nurtured the revival of humanist ideals and rights from classical antiquity. Those Greco-Roman foundations of human rights had been largely supplanted by the church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It would take revolutions in science, geo-politics, mercantilism, and culture to pave the way to individual enlightenment and revive the conversation in human rights.

Meanwhile, human rights were left in limbo during religious tension set off by Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation of the sixteenth century and the subsequent several Great Awakenings (beginning in the eighteenth century) continued to divide and refine human rights as drawn from Christianity. Those divisions subtly changed how faith influenced conceptions of human rights according to where religion spread. The challenges to supremacy of Roman Catholicism incited wars across the European continent consuming the better part of a century between 1562 and 1648. That final year, the Treaty of Westphalia ended the religious wars and divided the continent into spheres of influence (Ishay). Individual religious freedom, however, would be saved for the colonization of the New World. Subsequent revolutions would affect notions of human rights all over the West.

Ultimately, the period of the European Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation broke up the moral monopoly held by the Roman Catholic church and spurred a shift in secular human thought to what would be known as the Enlightenment.

Enlightenment and Industrialization

property As Western agrarian nations industrialized, the rising middle class and enlightened governments spurred major advances in human rights The importance of Enlightenment-era thinking to the history of human rights is that human rights were tied up in national struggles for freedom and independence. A rising middle class, free market economies, and individual rights replaced feudal authoritarianism and Inquisition-era church authority in the eighteenth century. A so-called universal right to life and property became fundamental to the Western tradition (though, as always, there were exemptions), and the Bill of Rights adopted by the newly independent United States became the benchmark of individual human rights in a free, democratic society:

  1. 1.  Freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, redress of grievances.
  2. 2.  A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
  3. 3.  Protection from quartering of troops in peacetime or in war.
  4. 4.  Protection from unreasonable search and seizure.
  5. 5-7.  Judicial rights of due process, freedom from self-incrimination and double jeopardy, and trial rights.
  6. 8.  No excessive bail nor cruel and unusual punishment.
  7. 9.  Protection of rights not specifically stated in the Constitution.
  8. 10.  States’ rights.

In the nineteenth century, social conflict arose to advance human rights—prompted not only as the bonds of slavery were formally eroded around the world, but also with increased demands from the working class and as woman fought to achieve equality. The diverging paths of capitalism and socialism evolved with often distinct notions of human rights even as their societies and people advanced along similar trajectories of industry and growth.

Debates over human rights erupted out of industrialization, especially as unions fought for labor equity and protection from unjust law and administration. In the United States, the disparate economies of the North and the South clashed over the question of slave labor. European classes and their roles in society were outlined by the most renowned thinkers of the era, including the champion of the middle class, Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx, who envisioned human rights being sustained by the working proletariat who, within their society’s economic infrastructure, “had ‘nothing to lose but their chains’” (Ishay).

The Eastern Tradition

Long before Islamic influence under the spread of the Arab Empire reached into the East, the ideological tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism had spread and taken hold. In addition, other Eastern philosophers, most notably Confucius from the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., have contributed to morally guiding humans in their everyday lives. While the teachings of Buddhism are attributable to Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, Hinduism’s origins are diverse and obscured by time.

Their teachings are numerous, but Buddhism and Hinduism put forth a code of human rights that can be boiled down to several basic tenets: freedom from violence, want, exploitation, early death and disease, fear, frustration, and despair, as well as freedom of conscience. Tolerance and compassion are also espoused in the Hindu Vedas, a moral code of conduct known as dharma that emphasizes the symbiotic interrelationship of all things. Compassion and solidarity in Buddhism hope for a universal ethic where people help one another in their common path to salvation—an idea that took hold in early Chinese philosophy as well.

Of central importance to the Chinese tradition is The Analects of Confucius, who asks, “Am I not a member of this human race?” Indeed, the modern conceptions of individualism and human rights share a lot with the two-millennia-old Confucian ethic, which believes “that all individuals, even commoners, [possess] rational, aesthetic, political, social, historical, and transcendental qualities that [can] be cultivated through education” (Ishay). People, Confucius maintains, can enjoy peace and security if their government looks after their “economic and moral welfare” (ibid). Confucius, then, is a logical source of inspiration for the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, given the Western belief in the role of governing bodies in preserving human rights for their citizens.

The Role of the West in Defining Universal Human Rights

compassion Peace, compassion, and freedom from fear and want are human right tenets at the heart of Eastern philosophy and religion At the time of European exploration into Eastern waters, the great civilizations of China and India had achieved as much, if not more, culturally than their Western counterparts.  There was even religious freedom and tolerance in India under the leadership of Akabar in the sixteenth century. The political and religious backbone of China held together a vast, populous, and often rebellious state because of the ethical strength and stability established by Confucius. Meanwhile, the technologically advanced Arab Empire that took hold across Persia and around the Mediterranean not only spread the tenets of Islam, but also had safeguarded and translated the best treatises of antiquity. The humanistic philosophy of Classical Greece was thriving in the Arab Empire. But, ultimately, the West would assume the responsibility of attempting to establish a universal human rights ethic.

The reason for the West’s assumption of the responsibility of defining human rights seems to lie in the astonishing speed with which the West ascended to domination. The revolutions of France and America, free-market capitalism, American entrepreneurialism, and Western invention along with industrialization all lent to the rise of the West. Important to the history of human rights are systems like the existence of the Hindu caste system in India and the centralized power and dominant unity of China. Castes are by definition not egalitarian, and the Confucian idea of universal justice couldn’t hold up to the increasing control of the centralized authority of Imperial China, which would be perfectly poised for a Communist revolution. Still, drafters of the UDHR borrowed heavily from latent Eastern philosophy as human rights finally became institutionalized (Ishay).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Universal Declaration of Human Rights First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a leading voice and author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Adopted by the United Nations in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights became the foundation of an international human rights tradition. The UDHR has been translated into hundreds of languages—more than any other document. Though the document itself has no legal force, it provides the platform for human rights all over the world and defines freedoms and rights fundamental to the language of the United Nations.

The declaration emerged out of World War II and broadly condemns acts of barbarism from the more distant past, though the document is clearly a reaction of moral outrage resulting specifically from the Holocaust (De Baets). The subsequent Nuremberg and Tokyo trials that tried war criminals in an international setting established precedents for the prosecution of crimes against peace and humanity that became the principles of the UDHR. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, The UDHR commission was helmed by Eleanor Roosevelt, who hoped the document’s preamble and 30 articles would be measured in importance against the eighteenth-century landmarks of human rights: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in France and the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in the United States (Ishay):

  1. Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
  2. Article 2 proclaims all rights listen therein are universal and “without distinction of any kind.”
  3. Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
  4. Article 4: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude…”
  5. Article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
  6. Article 11 provides for innocence until guilt is proven.
  7. Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion…”
  8. Article 19 and 20:  Freedom of expression, opinion, and assembly.
  9. Article 23: Right to work clause with provision for “favorable conditions.”
  10. Article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellness of himself and of his family…”

While all the rights are noble in intent, the Human Rights Commission faced the challenging assumption that, in fact, there are no universal ethics. The commission wrote a questionnaire for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to circulate among prominent thinkers of the time in order to bring together a variety of traditions, from both the East and the West.

Debate quickly erupted between sides. Unfortunately, even amid its calls for civil rights, America was rightly called out by the Soviets for its segregationist policies still intact throughout the South. There remained serious questions of universality. Nevertheless, the declaration was adopted without dissent. Fifty of the then-58 member states ratified the document. The other eight, including the Soviet Union, abstained from voting, with legitimate concerns that the U.N. document would supplant the preferences of their own states. It was a fitting beginning to a tense era of Cold War, but a serious challenge to subsequent efforts in the push for universal rights.

The International Bill of Human Rights

The next phase in the history of human rights came with elaborations on articles of the UDHR into two covenants adopted in 1966, both featuring the right to self-determination and freedom from discrimination based upon “race, color, sex, language, religion, or political or other opinions” (Ishay). The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights combined with the UDHR into an International Bill of Human Rights. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) utilized their relationship with the U.N. to continue to push for expanded rights and treaties, including the rights of children and the prevention of racial or gender discrimination.

The Second Half of the Twentieth Century

On the heels of the International Bill of Human Rights, an additional wave of activism expanded the reach of those documents into “health rights, women’s rights, economic justice, and indigenous people’s rights” (Cmiel). But the reach of those rights remained only as far as a nation’s political borders. And the lofty intentions of the bill were no match for the challenges of the global socio-political landscape, pervasive religious and ethnic intolerance, and the duplicity of governments.

The last decade of the twentieth century witnessed a frightening array of human rights violations even as Slobodan Milošević was incarcerated for crimes against humanity in a major international tribunal similar to the tribunals that followed World War II. Even in the latter decades of the twentieth century, clashes in nationalism, belief, ethnicity, class, and government have led to violent war in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as rampant genocide in such places as Kosovo, Rwanda, and Darfur, to name only a few. None of these situations has presented a clear-cut solution to outsiders looking in. Stopping genocide is a lofty ideal challenged by the debate over the right of intervention into sovereign nations (Peterson).

Human Rights in a Global Society

human torture When cultures clash, people often suffer violence as a result of difference, ignorance, and fear By some reports, human torture is as prevalent now as nearly four decades ago when Amnesty International began campaigning against the use of torture. Optimism of progress in the campaign seemed to have peaked in the 90s. Many analysts are concerned that a new era, in part defined by post-9/11 anxiety, has reversed the momentum gained by human rights activists of the previous decade. But what persists at the heart of the matter are the same kinds of cross-cultural concerns that faced imperialistic nations from ancient times into the present: different cultures are driven by different perspectives.

While international laws are written with innate rights of human beings in mind, “universalistic claims” made about those rights are potentially “masking a dangerous hubris.” (Cmiel). What that means is, as well meaning as declarations of human rights are, they cannot be forced upon people without making their designers seem arrogant. The concern was evident even during the drafting of the UDHR, when framers insisted the document was more than just the culmination of a strictly Western tradition.

On the other hand, an increase in activity by nongovernmental organizations may point toward a better future—just as, for example, China’s simple willingness to participate in a conversation about human rights suggests the possibility of improved conditions for the poorest citizens within the People’s Republic. Uprisings and revolutions, like the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia in 2011, are the result of widespread discontent for iron-fisted rule under authoritarian leaders. Waves of discontent have spread throughout North Africa and in countries where regimes allow for rampant governmental and police corruption and the suppression of individual rights. Talk of governmental transparency in the United States intends to ensure actions representative of the fundamental rights to freedom upon which America is founded, but allegations of torture and liberties taken under the pretexts of democracy and war have undermined the dominance of the country in the global community.

In the modern era, technology and the Internet have prompted new questions of privacy with respect to human rights. Most pointedly, the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act (commonly known as the Patriot Act) in the United States as a result of the 2001 terrorist attacks allows the U.S. government unprecedented access to the private lives of its citizens. While privacy and bodily harm are two extremes of human rights, this act illustrates the breadth of the question of human rights. More importantly, global terrorism itself has spawned governmental reaction such as the Patriot Act to protect national interest as well as to attempt to protect its citizens from fear—one of the most basic tenets of human rights.

The nations of the world may never agree on what rights are truly universal. The moral imperatives of any declaration have been proven unable to supplant local religious and political preferences in how people should be governed or allowed to live. The “spirit of brotherhood” prominently featured in the first article of the Universal Declaration suggests a common purpose and human behavior and safeguard against oppression and fear. But any future progress is dependent upon the willingness of nations to uphold those ideals in an open, transparent,  just, and cooperative world community that may not share common philosophical ground but shares literal ground.

-- Posted December 11, 2010


Cmiel, Kenneth. “The Recent History of Human Rights.” American Historical Review. (February 2004): 117-135.

De Baets, Antoon. “Impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the Study of History.” History and Theory. Vol 48. (February 2009): 20-43.

Hunt, Lynn. 2007. Inventing Human Rights: A History. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Ishay, Micheline R. 2004. The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lewis, Jon E., ed. 2003. A Documentary History of Human Rights: A Record of the Events, Documents and Speeches that Shaped Our World. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

Peterson, Richard T. “Human Rights: Historical Learning in the Shadow of Violence.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Vol. 68:1 (January 2009): 253-272.