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A Brief History of the Human Rights Movement

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A Brief History of the Human Rights Movement

The concept of human rights has existed under several names in European thought for many centuries, at least since the time of King John of England. After the king violated a number of ancient laws and customs by which England had been governed, his subjects forced him to sign the Magna Carta (1215), or Great Charter, which enumerates a number of what later came to be thought of as human rights. Among them were the right of the Church to be free from governmental interference, the rights of all free citizens to own and inherit property and be free from excessive taxes. It established the right of widows who owned property to choose not to remarry, and established principles of due process and equality before the law. It also contained provisions forbidding bribery and official misconduct.

The political and religious traditions in other parts of the world also proclaimed what have come to be called human rights, calling on rulers to rule justly and compassionately, and delineating limits on their power over the lives, property, and activities of their citizens.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe several philosophers proposed the concept of "natural rights," rights belonging to a person by nature and because he was a human being, not by virtue of his citizenship in a particular country or membership in a particular religious or ethnic group. This concept was vigorously debated and rejected by some philosophers as baseless. Others saw it as a formulation of the underlying principle on which all ideas of citizens' rights and political and religious liberty were based.

In the late 1700s two revolutions occurred which drew heavily on this concept. In 1776 most of the British colonies in North America proclaimed their independence from the British Empire in a document which still stirs feelings, and debate, the U.S. Declaration of Independence. In 1789 the people of France overthrew their monarchy and established the first French Republic. Out of the revolution came the "Declaration of the Rights of Man."

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.-American Declaration of Independence, 1776.

The term natural rights eventually fell into disfavour, but the concept of universal rights took root. Philosophers such as Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, and Henry David Thoreau expanded the concept. Thoreau is the first philosopher I know of to use the term, "human rights", and does so in his treatise, Civil Disobedience. This work has been extremely influential on individuals as different as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. Gandhi and King, in particular, developed their ideas on non-violent resistance to unethical government actions from this work.

Other early proponents of human rights were English philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his Essay on Liberty, and American political theorist Thomas Paine in his essay, The Rights of Man.

The middle and late 19th century saw a number of issues take centre stage, many of them issues we in the late 20th century would consider human rights issues. They included slavery, serfdom, brutal working conditions, starvation wages, child labour, and, in the Americas, the "Indian Problem", as it was known at the time. In the United States, a bloody war over slavery came close to destroying a country founded only eighty years earlier on the premise that, "all men are created equal." Russia freed its serfs the year that war began. Neither the emancipated American slaves nor the freed Russian serfs saw any real degree of freedom or basic rights for many more decades, however.

For the last part of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, though, human rights activism remained largely tied to political and religious groups and beliefs. Revolutionaries pointed at the atrocities of governments as proof that their ideology was necessary to bring about change and end the government's abuses. Many people, disgusted with the actions of governments in power, first got involved with revolutionary groups because of this. The governments then pointed at bombings, strike-related violence, and growth in violent crime and social disorder as reasons why a stern approach toward dissent was necessary.

Neither group had any credibility with the other and most had little or no credibility with uninvolved citizens, because their concerns were generally political, not humanitarian. Politically partisan protests often just encouraged more oppression, and uninvolved citizens who got caught in the crossfire usually cursed both sides and made no effort to listen to the reasons given by either.

Nonetheless many specific civil rights and human rights movements managed to affect profound social changes during this time. Labour unions brought about laws granting workers the right to strike, establishing minimum work conditions, forbidding or regulating child labour, establishing a forty hour work week in the United States and many European countries, etc. The women's rights movement succeeded in gaining for many women the right to vote. National liberation movements in many countries succeeded in driving out colonial powers. One of the most influential was Mahatma Gandhi's movement to free his native India from British rule. Movements by long-oppressed racial and religious minorities succeeded in many parts of the world, among them the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

In 1961 a group of lawyers, journalists, writers, and others, offended and frustrated by the sentencing of two Portuguese college students to twenty years in prison for having raised their glasses in a toast to "freedom" in a bar, formed Appeal for Amnesty, 1961. The appeal was announced on May 28 in the London Observer's Sunday Supplement. The appeal told the stories of six "prisoners of conscience" from different countries and of different political and religious backgrounds, all jailed for peacefully expressing their political or religious beliefs, and called on governments everywhere to free such prisoners. It set forth a simple plan of action, calling for strictly impartial, non-partisan appeals to be made on behalf of these prisoners and any who, like them, had been imprisoned for peacefully expressed beliefs. The response to this appeal was larger than anyone had expected. The one-year appeal grew, was extended beyond the year, and Amnesty International and the modern human rights

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