Wed, Dec 10, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Evolution of human rights in the world

By Herbert Hanreich

Just a few years after the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the French Revolution began to spin out of control, leading to human disasters all over France in the years that followed. Tens of thousands of people were guillotined for political reasons, executed at the order of officials who exercised state powers while disregarding the natural right to life for all citizens. Those who were executed were killed without due process, which would have guaranteed them not only legal protection, but most likely their lives as well.

Around that time, the British founding father of an ethical position labeled utilitarianism (“seeking greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”), Jeremy Bentham, wrote that the idea of humanity being endowed with natural rights is “nonsense upon stilts,” referring thereby to declarations emerging from both the American and French revolutions in which such rights were invoked. Today, more than two hundred years later, many people think that what Bentham said about natural rights is itself such nonsense.

We have changed our views on humanity during that period of time.

Today we esteem human dignity — the natural right to be free from arbitrary suppression and discrimination by state powers — considerably more highly than in centuries before. Not incidentally, the tragic course of the French Revolution accelerated this change of perspective.

Another milestone on that path is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN on Dec. 10, 1948 — an event the world commemorates annually as Human Rights Day. This declaration resulted directly from the horrendous experiences of the Holocaust — the organized killing of more than 6 million Jews for the simple reason that they were Jewish. This was done through official state mechanisms in Nazi Germany during World War II. Today the declaration’s provisions are incorporated in most national legislations around the world.

The norms contained in that declaration mainly define negative rights, that is, natural rights which protect human dignity and individual life choices from illegitimate infringements by state authorities. They include the right to life; freedom of opinion and expression; equality before the law; non-discrimination on the basis of skin color, gender, race, religion; and others. They are defensive, hence “negative.”

The declaration also contains positive rights, that is, basic rights individuals are entitled to claim from their governments; they are mainly about opportunity and equal access to basic public services, including healthcare, pension systems and educational institutions. Equal access to them is a human right.

Remarkable progress has been made in this respect on a global level since 1948. Taiwan is an apt example for such progress: its social services have been constantly improving for decades. It seems that there is reason for optimism to assume that things will continue to get better on the human rights front, despite some appalling developments in permanently troubled regions around the world.

Recent publications, however, question the rationale of such an optimistic assumption. There is rising awareness that many governments have been managing their economies within the past decades in ways which reduce equal access to social institutions. This is especially true for the poor who are no longer able to pay for rising contributions which would keep them in the system. Many experts think that this development is politically no longer tolerable.

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