Tracing Human Rights: The Historical Path from Magna Carta to Universal Declaration


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Human rights are obligations that government and society must fulfill. Some rights limit governmental power, including freedom of speech and religious liberty. Other rights are also societal obligations, including education, health care, and protection from harm. Feudalism recognized a system of obligations. The Magna Carta (1215) was a precedent for a rule of law that applied to all. Enlightenment beliefs recognized all humans equally had rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provided a model for all humanity. 

Feudalism: Obligations For All 

Our story begins in 12th-century England. In those times, feudalism was the economic, political, and social system practiced throughout Western Europe. 

People lived in a hierarchical society with the king at the apex and the church handling religious matters. Everyone had a role with interlocking duties. For instance, nobles provided peasants with land and protection. Peasants had a duty to till the soil and serve the nobles. 

Magna Carta 

King John, the enemy of the famous mythical outlaw Robin Hood, came into power in 1199. He quickly had problems.  Expensive ones that led him John to clash with his feudal barons. 

English kings traditionally promised to follow accepted rules. There were ways to handle land disputes, inheritance matters, taxes, and privileges granted to cities. John broke the rules.

The barons pressured King John to sign the Magna Carta (“Great Charter”) in 1215. The Magna Charter was a promise to follow the rules, including due process of law (fair procedure).

The document was a promise among elites. Nonetheless, the Magna Carta established a precedent upholding the rule of law, which eventually was applied to everyone. 

English Bill of Rights 

The Magna Carta shows how rights often arise from wrongs. The principle of “the king can do no wrong” did not mean the people accepted tyranny. Everyone had obligations. 

The Great Charter helped set in place the obligation of the monarch to obtain permission from representatives of the people (the Parliament) to obtain funding. When King Charles challenged the privileges of the Parliament, a civil war began. Charles eventually lost his head (literally). 

James II was another unpopular king. Protestant England did not like James’ Catholic sympathies. His policies were unpopular, including cruel and unusual punishments.

Parliament invited Mary, his Protestant daughter, and her husband to rule England. The new royal couple agreed to a list (or “bill”) of rights that protected civil liberties. 

The English Bill of Rights protected the right to petition the king, freedom of speech in Parliament, due process, and gave Protestants the right to bear arms for defense. 

Declaration of Independence 

American colonists believed the Parliament and king were not protecting their ancient rights and liberties. After years of protest, the colonists declared their independence. 

How did the Americans justify what appeared to be blatant treason? The Declaration of Independence argued that everyone is born with certain rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Any just government had a duty to protect these rights. 

The colonists provided a list of grievances that showed how the king was a tyrant. The people had an obligation as a free people to rebel to protect themselves. They won on the battlefield. 

The Declaration of Independence was a statement of principle. The newly independent United States later ratified a constitution setting forth the rules of a limited government. The different branches checked and balanced each other. The people had fundamental rights. 

Declaration of The Rights Of Man 

The Age of Enlightenment inspired the American rebels. 

People used human reason to determine what was necessary for happiness. A “law of nature” was present that all governments must respect. France was a hotbed of enlightenment. 

Economic problems led to a revolution in France. The democratic revolutionaries rebelled against elites, proclaiming “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The rebels did not only support freedom and equal justice for all. “Fraternity” involves solidarity with all of humanity. 

The French adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man modeled after the English Bill of Rights and the American Declaration of Independence. The ideals spread as the French conquered Europe. They had staying power even after the French lost the war in 1815. 

Men are born free and equal with fundamental rights. All citizens are entitled to a voice in making the nation’s laws. All persons are guaranteed equality before the law. 

These enlightenment values had staying power, including in revolutions in Latin America

Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

If rights arise out of wrongs, World War II was an extremely fertile ground for rights.

The horrors of World War II, including the Holocaust, underlined the importance of protecting human rights. An all-powerful state could lead to horrible injustices. The United Nations, the new association of nations, determined a statement of moral principle was necessary.

Eleanor Roosevelt became the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission. They had the task of writing an international bill of human rights. Could they write a bill of rights for the world? 

Worldwide representatives from places as diverse as China, Lebanon, India, and the Phillippines worked together. They found that humanity could agree upon fundamental rights and obligations. The United States Bill of Rights has negative limits on government. 20th-century bills for rights are a mixture of limits and obligations for government and society.  

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes individual, economic, and social rights. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. They also have the right to a basic standard of living and adequate health care. Men and women have the right to marry and start a family. Each spouse voluntarily chooses. Society must protect the needs of the family.   

The United Nations found it was easier to provide statements of principle than to pass binding covenants. Nonetheless, people worldwide continue to be inspired to put them into action.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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