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Background

The Big Picture

By the late 1940s, the richest and most developed countries of the world had just managed to fight another world war, once again destroying their economies and killing tens of millions of people—including the deliberate slaughter of six million Jews—as well as demonstrating, in retrospect, that economic development does not automatically bring about peace and respect for human rights. The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights was a reaction to this barbarism. Pushed strongly by Eleanor Roosevelt (Glendon 2002), the then US first lady, as well as a coalition of North American NGOs, it spells out a list of specific, inalienable rights all human beings possess by virtue of being human. This document was a milestone in world politics, seeking to place explicit limits on the way states could treat their own citizens, challenging as never before the “the natural right of each sovereign to be monstrous to his or her subjects” (Farer and Gaer 1993, 240).

The intellectual origin of human rights lies in the concept of natural rights, which provided some of the theoretical foundations for the French and American revolutions of the late eighteenth century. The idea of natural rights developed in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Western Europe as a tool to protect individuals from the arbitrariness of the absolutist state. The central claim of this body of thought was that every individual possesses certain natural rights simply by the nature of being an individual. These rights are inalienable and must be respected by the state (Steiner and Alston 2000, 361ff.). The origin of natural rights is, therefore, integral to the struggle against political absolutism in the West.

Though human rights possess essentially the same raison d’être and vision as natural rights of the eighteenth century, the current notion of

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Human Rights and Development
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