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Mariela Baeva
Mariela Baeva
Member of the European Parliament for Bulgaria
2007 - 2009
(first direct EP elections in Bulgaria);

LEED to OECD partner (Nanotech)

Charter 4 Mobile

Charter 4 mobile

Anyone interested in fundamental rights in the European Union (EU) can now have easy access to the text of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in all official languages on their mobile device: http://fra.europa.eu/en/charter4mobile



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The Origins of Human Rights Concept

The expression “human rights” is relatively new, having come into everyday parlance only since World War II, the founding of the United Nations in 1945, and the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Origins of the concept go to ancient Greece and Rome, where it was closely tied to the doctrines of the Stoics**, who held that human conduct should be judged according to, and brought into harmony with, the law of nature. A classic example of this view is given in Sophocles’ play Antigone, in which the title character, upon being reproached by King Creon for defying his command not to bury her slain brother, asserted that she acted in accordance with the immutable laws of the gods.

Roman law similarly allowed for the existence of a natural law and with it—pursuant to the jus gentium (“law of nations”)—certain universal rights that extended beyond the rights of citizenship.

For the idea of human rights qua natural rights to gain general recognition, therefore, certain basic societal changes were necessary, changes of the sort that took place gradually, beginning with the decline of European feudalism from about the 13th century and continuing through the Renaissance to the Peace of Westphalia***(1648). The teachings of Aquinas and Hugo Grotius on the European continent, and the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right of 1628, and the English Bill of Rights (1689) in England, were proof of this change. Each testified to the increasingly popular view that human beings are endowed with certain eternal and inalienable rights that never were renounced when humankind “contracted” to enter the social from the primitive state and never diminished by the claim of the “divine right of kings”.

The modern conception of natural law as meaning or implying natural rights was elaborated primarily by thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries. The intellectual—and especially the scientific—achievements of the 17th century (including the materialism of Hobbes, the rationalism of Descartes and Leibniz, the pantheism of Spinoza, and the empiricism of Bacon and Locke) encouraged a belief in natural law and universal order; and during the 18th century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment, a growing confidence in human reason and in the perfectibility of human affairs led to the more comprehensive expression of this belief. Particularly important were the writings of John Locke, arguably the most important natural-law theorist of modern times, and the works of the 18th-century philosophes centred mainly in Paris, including Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The philosophers, building on Locke and others and embracing many and varied currents of thought with a common supreme faith in reason, vigorously attacked religious and scientific dogmatism, intolerance, censorship, and social and economic restraints (Thomas Jefferson).

In sum, the idea of human rights, though known by another name, played a key role in late 18th- and early 19th-century struggles against political absolutism. It was, indeed, the failure of rulers to respect the principles of freedom and equality that was responsible for this development.

Although the heyday of natural rights proved short, the idea of rights nonetheless endured. The abolition of slavery, the implementation of factory legislation, the rise of popular education and trade unionism, the universal suffrage movement—these and other examples of 19th-century reformist impulses afford ample evidence that the idea was not to be extinguished, even if its a priori derivation had become a matter of general skepticism. But it was not until the rise and fall of Nazi Germany that the idea of human rights truly came into its own. Many of the gruesome atrocities committed by the Nazi regime had been officially authorized by Nazi laws and decrees, and this fact convinced many that law and morality cannot be grounded in any purely Idealist or Utilitarian or other consequentialist doctrine.

The last half of the 20th century may fairly be said to mark the birth of the international as well as the universal recognition of human rights. In the charter establishing the United Nations, for example, all member states pledged themselves to take joint and separate action for the achievement of “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, representatives from many cultures endorsed the rights therein set forth “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” And in 1976 the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, each approved by the UN General Assembly in 1966, entered into force and effect.

 

*Excerpts from Burns H. Weston’s article (Bessie Dutton Murray Distinguished Professor of Law; Associate Dean for International and Comparative Legal Studies, University of Iowa, Iowa City. Coauthor of Human Rights in the World Community and others.)

**Stoicism, a school of thought that flourished in Greek and Roman antiquity. It was one of the loftiest and most sublime philosophies in the record of Western civilization. In urging participation in human affairs, Stoics have always believed that the goal of all inquiry is to provide a mode of conduct characterized by tranquillity of mind and certainty of moral worth (source: Encyclopædia Britannica).

***A series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 in Osnabrück and Münster. These treaties ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic, with Spain formally recognizing the independence of the Dutch Republic (source: Wikipedia).

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