what are human rights?
Human rights violations and corruption are widespread on all levels in all Eurasian countries. Not only the opponents of regimes, critics, human rights defenders, journalists, but also ordinary citizens who try to fight violations of their rights and resist corruption face brutal reprisals and suppression by the authorities, using the entire repressive state apparatus, including law enforcement agencies, special services and courts.
The definition of “Human Rights” is comprised of two separate words “Human” and “Rights”. A “human” — “a man, woman, or child”. The “Rights” — “power, privilege, or condition of existence to which one has a natural claim of enjoyment or possession”.
There are many different rights that belong to specific groups of people such as union rights, workers’ rights, and others. To enjoy human rights there is no need to belong to any group. These are the rights everyone is entitled to simply because they are humans regardless of nationality, place of residence, gender, ethnicity, religion, language or any other distinction. In other words, these rights are universal and reflect how everyone naturally expects and deserves to be treated by others.
Human Rights are universally protected in all countries, but they are internationally protected via international law. After the WWII, in 1948 the United National General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, anchoring them in international policy. In Europe there is also the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights to protect these rights.
Ancient sources and evolution of human rights
Ideas and concepts of human rights and justice did not just originate in a single location of the world, at a single time. Rather, they emerged from centuries of melting pot of different cultures, historical context, religious beliefs, secular traditions and philosophies. Some of these concepts were adopted as natural rights and some erupted as a reaction against violence, severe abuse and terrible atrocities. For example, The Universal Declaration of Human rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 came as a result of World War II, particularly the Holocaust with nations around the world vowing to never again allow such atrocities to happen.
Archeologists have found many ancient legal texts, including the Sumer Code of Ur-Nammu (c 2100–2050 BCE), the Lipit-Ishtar codex (c 1930 BCE), and the Laws of Eshnunna (c 1770 BCE) serving as evidence of ancient civilizations strive towards establishing legal order. The ancient record recognized as the world’s first human rights charter is the “Edict of Cyrus” written in an Akkadian cuneiform script on a baked clay cylinder in the name of the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great, after his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. As a new ruler Cyrus freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. A replica of the Cyrus cylinder was presented to the United Nations by the government of Iran in 1971.
Another known remarkable contribution to evolution of human rights came from King Hammurabi who around 1754 B.C. issued a code of 282 laws, that along other regulations outlined the principle that the “the weak shall not be harmed by the strong”. As controversial as it is, due to “an eye for an eye” nature, the codex demonstrates the earliest attempts to set forth the concept of a court of law, the right to a fair trial and the right to present evidence before the judges, the right to presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the right to freedom of speech. Extraordinary for his time Hammurabi set forth the most important human rights principle that everyone is equal before the law, even the king himself.
Human Rights in modern days
Throughout the history of mankind, the concepts of human rights sprouted in ancient India, Greece, Rome, and even in the empire of the brutal Asian conqueror Genghis Khan. Finally, after centuries of revolts, revolutions and atrocious wars humanity came together and formed a United Nations “…to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”. In 1948 nations finally agreed on a set of 30 human rights that are known today as “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” the first four Articles of which are parallel to the provisions of the 539 B.C. “Edict of Cyrus”.
In modern days, the human rights (positive rights) and freedoms (negative rights) are norms that limit the power of the majority protecting the minority in a democratic society. Human rights and freedoms are legal principles that protect the dignity and freedom of each individual and determine the relationship between an individual and the government. Fundamental rights determine the basis of the legal status of an individual, as prescribed in the Constitution of each democratic state and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is a source for a variety of human rights documents. Basic principles of human rights and freedoms are: a) they are universal and inalienable, b) integral, interconnected and interdependent, c) non-discriminatory.
To become a reality these human rights must be implemented on national levels. With universal rights to adequate housing, food, healthcare, education, to freely speak their mind, peacefully protest and practice their faith, there are estimated 1.6 billion people or 20% of the worlds’ population lacking adequate housing, 822 million people starving and starvation claiming a child’s life every 3 seconds, thousands of critics, activists and journalists around the world killed, imprisoned or otherwise persecuted, over a billion people unable to read, people of faith subjected to discrimination, persecution and genocide, 70.8 million people forcibly displaced, including 25.9 million refugees, surpassing the post-World War II numbers. With slavery abolished for decades, there are 40.3 million people enslaved today, 5 times more than in 18th century. These rights and protections must be implemented by domestic authorities on national levels which are often unwilling or unable to respect and guarantee these rights. Human rights should start at home. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seek equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”