A Short History International Human Rights Law

By Viljoen, Frans | UN Chronicle, March-June 2009 | Go to article overview

A Short History International Human Rights Law


Viljoen, Frans, UN Chronicle


The phrase "human rights" may be used in an abstract and philosophical sense, either as denoting a special category of moral claim that all humans may invoke or, more pragmatically, as the manifestation of these claims in positive law, for example, as constitutional guarantees to hold Governments accountable under national legal processes. While the first understanding of the phrase may be referred to as "human rights", the second is described herein as "human rights law".

While the origin of "human rights" lies in the nature of the human being itself, as articulated in all the world's major religions and moral philosophy, "human rights law" is a more recent phenomenon that is closely associated with the rise of the liberal democratic State. In such States, majoritarianism legitimizes legislation and the increasingly bureaucratized functioning of the executive. However, majorities sometimes may have little regard for "numerical" minorities, such as sentenced criminals, linguistic or religious groups, non-nationals, indigenous peoples and the socially stigmatized. It therefore becomes necessary to guarantee the existence and rights of numerical minorities, the vulnerable and the powerless. This is done by agreeing on the rules governing society in the form of a constitutionally entrenched and justiciable bill of rights containing basic human rights for all. Through this bill of rights, "human rights law" is created, becoming integral to the legal system and superior to ordinary law and executive action.

In this article, some aspects of the history of human rights law at the global, regional and subregional levels are traced. The focus falls on the recent, rather than the more remote, past. To start with, some observations are made about the "three generations" of human rights law.

THREE GENERATIONS OF INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS LAW

Human rights activism can be described as a struggle to ensure that the gap between human rights and human rights law is narrowed down in order to ensure the full legal recognition and actual realization of human rights. History shows that governments do not generally grant rights willingly but that rights gains are only secured through a successful challenge to absolutist authority. Following on the Magna Carta, which set limits on the powers of royal Government in thirteenth century England, the 1776 American Declaration of Independence and the 1789 French Declaration des droits de l'Homme et de du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen) were landmarks of how revolutionary visions could be transformed into national law and made into justiciable guarantees against future abuse.

The traditional categorization of three generations of human rights, used in both national and international human rights discourse, traces the chronological evolution of human rights as an echo to the cry of the French revolution: Liberie (freedoms, "civil and political" or "first generation" rights), Egalite (equality, "socio-economic" or "second generation" rights), and Fraternite (solidarity, "collective" or "third generation" rights). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the struggle for rights focused on the liberation from authoritarian oppression and the corresponding rights of free speech, association and religion and the right to vote. With the changed view of the State role in an industrializing world, and against the background of growing inequalities, the importance of socio-economic rights became more clearly articulated. With growing globalization and a heightened awareness of overlapping global concerns, especially due to extreme poverty in some parts of the world, "third generation" rights, such as the rights to a healthy environment, to self-determination and to development, have been adopted.

During the period of the cold war, "first generation" rights were prioritized in Western democracies, while second generation rights were resisted as socialist notions. …

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