Fri, Dec 12, 2003 - Page 9 News List

What is the legal basis for human rights?

The UN Declaration of Human Rights is the backbone of many constitutions but still enjoys scant respect under the world's authoritarian regimes

By Su Beng


The idea of human rights did not exist in ancient societies based on slavery and feudal societies in the Middle Ages, when people were not treated as human beings.

This idea only started to take shape when the feudal system began to collapse, the existence of "humanity" was discovered during the Renaissance, and capitalism began to develop.

Only after the British philosopher of liberalism John Locke and the French philosopher of naturalism Jean-Jacques Rousseau theorized the rights of freedom and equality in the 17th century were human beings deemed entitled to "human rights" as soon as they are born.

After the human rights declaration in the US Declaration of Independence was published in 1776 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was made public in 1789 during the French Revolution, the idea of human rights started to develop extensively across Europe.

Since then, citizens' rights to property, and freedom of speech and publication have been institutionalized and popularized. They were also recorded in the constitutions of democratic nations.

By the end of World War II, member states of the UN believed that basic human rights were an important factor in maintaining world peace and international order. Therefore, on Dec. 10, 1948, the UN's General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and designated the day as International Human Rights Day.

The concept and systems of freedom and human rights finally secured a stable basis in the constitutions of various countries.

The preamble of the declaration states:

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

"Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.

"Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom..."

In addition to general concepts about freedom of speech, assembly and residence, the declaration's 30 articles also include some important human rights clauses:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

"Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."

"Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person."

"No one shall be held in slavery or servitude."

"No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. "

"All are equal before the law."

But real freedom, democracy and equality are still unseen in colonial societies and authoritarian countries because what they advocate is fake -- freedom, democracy and equality in name only.

Su Beng (史明) is a Taiwan independence activist and founder of the Su Beng Educational Foundation.

Translated by Jackie Lin

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