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[Opinion] The History of Human Rights

Posted March. 13, 2005 22:46,   


It took a while for the “human rights culture” to take shape. Ancient Greeks justified their political freedom and equality by distinguishing themselves from barbarians, and Romans distributed rights according to lineage and contributions. Despite their doctrine of humanitarian brotherhood, the crusaders in the Middle Ages discriminated “humans” from “pagan dogs.” The idea that every human being is entitled to equal rights was equally unfamiliar, even in the modern age.

The notion of human rights evolved greatly during the revolution in the 18th century to overthrow the discriminative order. Jefferson and Lafayette promoted the absolute nature and universality of human rights as a symbol of progress. The American Declaration of Independence in the U.S., the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in France, and Bill of Rights in Britain are the historical records that enhanced human rights. However, even Jefferson himself kept a black servant while believing that all human beings were endowed with inalienable rights from their creator. The distinction between real humans and fake ones were deep-rooted aside from rational arguments.

The worldwide concern over human rights emerged with the end of World War II. The first fruit was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Representatives of each nation that participated in its drafting accepted innate freedom and equality of all humans as a self-evident truth. They reached a consensus despite some conflict between sovereignty and international rules over the right to exile and jurisdiction issues. The rationale of the agreement was the cruelty of war and the experiences of Nazism. Indeed, the faith in human rights was formed not based on abstract morals, but on the existential memory of pain.

Human rights and sovereignty are at odds. We can see how difficult it is to secure the universality of human rights from the recent disclosure of the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report, and China and Russia’s reaction to it. When superpowers start taking issues with human rights situation of countries on the other side, the idea of human rights is reduced to a means of power politics. It would be an irony if human rights deteriorated into an ideology that escalates tension, given it was war that inspired the world to realize the urgent need of human rights.

Yoo Hong-lim, guest commentator and political science professor at SNU,