HUMAN RIGHTS: THEN AND NOW
by Stan Griffin
Human rights have been debated for centuries. They are defined as: "fundamental rights, especially those believed to belong to an individual and in whose exercise a government cannot interfere, as the right to speak, associate, and work."
Early in the world's history, people existed under the control of dictatorial rulers. Their subjects had no rights at all. They usually lived like animals, at the suffrance of whoever was in authority. Whether the people lived or died depended on the whim of the king, queen, pharaoh, potentate, sovereign, prince, emperor, chieftain, etc. Their decisions were final; there was no appeal.
Persons were born, lived their squalid lives working from dawn to dusk with no expectation of bettering themselves. They followed the same religion as the man in charge. Eventually they died with no dignity.
These folks rarely said anything unfavorable about their leader, being very much aware of the likely consequences. Anyone could be thrown into prison with a trial, simply on the word of the ruler. Time in prison was served in unspeakable surroundings. When a confession was wanted, torture was used--methods that inflicted terrible pain on the individual. It was usually successful, whatever the prisoner's guilt or innocence. (Of course, many times death intervened.)
" The concept of human rights emerged from the Western traditions of natural law, natural rights, and liberal individualism."
In 13th century England the conduct of kings finally drove the country's upper classes to action. King John was "persuaded" to sign a document called the "Magna Carta" (1215). It limited his power and that of rulers who followed. In the "Charter" were guarantees of trial by jury, barriers to arbitrary arrest, and pledges to provide everyone with full, free, and speedy justice--equally to all -- " ... by the law of the land." It made clear that the state could not infringe on fundamental human rights. In time, the country's lower classes gained these rights so the whole country was protected against government oppression.
In 1628 the "Petition of Rights" was enacted. It stated the king could not impose taxes capriciously, without consent of the elected Parliament (their lawmaking body).
The English Bill of Rights went into effect in 1689. This document dealt with the issue of taxes (reinforcing the Petition of Rights). It banned interference with elections, cruel and unusual punishments, and excessive bail. Also included was a guarantee that the right to petition the government would remain in effect permanently.
That same year a "Toleration Act" officially allowed religions other than the Anglican Church, the state-sanctioned denomination. This was a landmark in the area of religious freedom in England.
The document that created the earliest English settlement in America--the Virginia Charter of 1606--set a precedent, stating that colonists were entitled to all the rights of Englishmen, even though they had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. As other colonies were planted abroad, the same guarantee was included.
Maryland's Act of 1639 provided no colonist could be imprisoned, his property taken, or be exiled except by "the law of this province." (This was a forerunner of the "due process" idea which became part of the U. S. Constitution. It made sure that individuals had "their day in court.")
Massachusetts enacted the first detailed American Charter (or Body) of Liberties in 1641. It re-stated certain individual human rights and liberties that had surfaced 400 years earlier. It protected freedom of speech and assembly in public meetings, equal protection under the law, and trial by jury. This instrument allowed no cruel or excessive punishments.
The colony of Pennsylvania put into force their "Frame of Government" in 1682. This included a bill of rights. Some examples of rights included were: a ban on excessive fines, guarantees of grand jury indictment, and a requirement that the accused be notified of the charges against him. It also stated that a jury's verdict not guilty verdict was final.
All of these colonial human rights guarantees were subject to review and alternation by the English Parliament. This eventually led to a clash between the mother country and the colonists who wanted the final word on those rights. It can accurately be said that human rights was a factor in the struggle we know as the "American Revolution."
Virginia's "Declaration of Rights," passed in the early days of that conflict, contained many elements that were later included in the Declaration of Independence and in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.
When Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he included this statement of human rights: " ... All men are created equal ... they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness ..." In other words he was saying that men have equal claim to basic human rights. They are a gift from God to all mankind and cannot be taken away or given away. This was a crucial step in the development of a federal bill of rights.
Jefferson's words were undeniably stirring, but the ideas were not specifically enumerated. To protect people's human rights, they needed to be spelled out more clearly.
The U. S. Constitution was approved in 1789, but it did not contain the important details of human rights. So the first ten amendments were added in 1791. Known as the "Bill of Rights," they got more specific by listing fundamental human rights, forbidding the government to violate them. Some of the important rights were:
(1) freedom of the press; (2) freedom of religion; (3) freedom of speech; (4) the right to assemble peacefully; (5) the right to petition the government for changes; (6) the right to be secure in a home without fearing unreasonable searches and seizures; (7) assurance of due process of law; (8) guarantees of a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury; and (9) to be free from all kinds of cruel and unusual punishments.
Later amendments added rights to the list. Slavery was outlawed. Black people, women, and 18-year-olds were assured of the right to vote. States were forbidden to limit voting by placing special taxes on voters.
Another landmark document in the struggle for universal human rights was France's "Declaration of the Rights of Citizens." It was issued in the midst of their Revolution and named general rights of "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression."
People all over the world--no matter what race, color, sex, language spoken, religion--have rights. This fact has been recognized by the United Nations. Soon after its birth they issued a "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." This was the most important human rights document of the 20th century. It was issued in 1948, on December 10. That day is still celebrated as "Human Rights Day."
"It is the most sweeping expression (yet) of the international vision of human rights ... For the first time the international community as a whole accepted the protection and promotion of human rights as a permanent obligation ... It sets the standard of achievement for all peoples and nations to work toward ..."
This document upheld the traditional civil and political rights of life, liberty, propety, and equal treatment under the law. It specified freedoms of opinion and belief. It outlawed slavery and torture. It gave everyone the right to take part in the government of their country. It also dealt with social, cultural, economic rights, and the "right to rest and live."
Since 1948 the U.N. has enacted other works on human rights. The most important came into being in 1966: the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Together, with the above-mentioned Universal Declaration, they are referred to as the "International Bill of Rights."
Unfortunately none of these documents was a law and therefore not legally binding. So they could not put a stop to the world human rights abuses. Still occuring in various places are the following:
(1) Religious Persecution; in some places no religions are allowed at all; in others, only one is permitted
(2) Restrictions on Movement; some governments put limits on where their citizens can go within their borders; others deny them the right to leave the country
(3) Forced Labor; there are camps where prisoners are made to work for the government
(4) Sex Discrimination; in some localities, women are "second-class citizens" and often the target of mistreatment
(5) Discrimination Against Minorities; this happens on the basis of race, religion, or ethnic background
(6) Political Repression; citizens opposing government policies are sometimes imprisoned for their activities
(7) Torture; it is still practiced in approximately 70 countries; at times it is PHYSICAL (beatings, electric shock, drugs, acid, etc.); others use PSYCHOLOGICAL torture (harsh living conditions, isolation, bright lights, being deprived of sleep, food, medical care, etc.)
There are a number of private organizations that attempt to alleviate human rights abuses today. The world's largest is "Amnesty International." Founded in 1961, it has 700,000 members and volunteers in over 150 countries.
Their goals are to help political prisoners (obtain their release or improve their treatment), put an end to torture, and ban capital punishment. They seem to be everywhere, to the dismay of many dictators.
Once Amnesty International officials confirm human rights abuses are taking place in a particular country, they flood government officials there with letters, telegrams, and faxes. This action lets those in charge know that someone is watching them. They also have periodic press conferences with newspaper and television coverage in an appeal to world opinion. In a sense, they shine the "light of truth" into dark corners. They have been successful in obtaining the release of many political prisoners.
The Amnesty International symbol of a candle surrounded by barbed wire is taken from the proverb: "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." The candle has come to represent all those prisoners of conscience whom Amnesty seeks to help.
In 1977 Amnesty International was named as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. When their delegation accepted the award, they said (in part): " ... Human rights cannot be left to governments, legislators, and jurists. They are the concern and responsibility of the man and woman in the street, of the laborer, the office clerk, the student ..."
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