FOUNDATION: Unit II. What Are Human Rights and Where Do They Come From? 3 of 15

Human Rights as Moral Rights

Magna Carta scene in National Cathedral

Human rights are fundamentally moral rights. The existence of human rights is a theory, a belief. It can’t be proven that individuals have human rights. It’s an idea that didn’t always exist, in practice or in law.

The Magna Carta was an English document that was an agreement that the sovereign or king had to consult with the lords or barons of the kingdom in establishing certain public policies. It was very important for the development of constitutional or limited government, but it was not a human rights document. It didn’t give any individual rights to the average person in the kingdom.

The philosophical idea of human rights has its roots in what is known as the European Enlightenment, a movement that took place in the eighteenth century in Western Europe. Enlightenment thinkers developed the idea of the rights of man. Of course, an idea alone was not enough to establish human rights in the world. Even after the Enlightenment, in the nineteenth century, citizens of the United States enslaved Africans and massacred Native Americans.

Storefront, 1864

Hitler taking oath of office as
Chancellor of Germany, 1933

By the twentieth century, though an effort was made to legally define moral rights at a national level, this was not enough to guarantee a safeguard for all. There is disagreement among states as to how to implement and protect human rights. But the need exists because human beings continue to do wrong to each other. Nazi Germany passed national laws permitting the killing of Jews and other “undesirables”, even though all these victims had the moral right not to be killed.

That is why people around the world saw the need to set international standards to prevent these wrongs. After World War II, a movement arose to define and defend human rights internationally. It sought to ensure that even hated people were not victimized. Later in the twentieth century, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned by the white minority government of South Africa. When the government used its laws to detain Mandela, international criticism widely proclaimed that South Africa’s action violated his human rights. Because of this international pressure, Mandela was eventually freed.

Newly-elected President Nelson Mandela,
Pretoria, South Africa, 1994

It has taken the world a long time to begin the process of universally addressing human rights abuses.

Should states have authority over each other?

In the 1840s, the US tried to balance state’s rights against the good of the country. What rights should a state have in the international community?

European Enlightenment
Magna Carta from The British Library
PBS Frontline: The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela
The Declaration of the Rights of Man (pdf file)