Earlier this week, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union announced sanctions against Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims. As Axios notes, “It’s a coordinated Western effort to hold Beijing accountable for its sweeping campaign of arbitrary detention, forced labor, and forced sterilization against ethnic minorities in the far west region of Xinjiang, which the U.S. State Department and several legislative bodies have recognized as genocide.”
Here are nine things you should know about how human rights developed into an issue of international concern.
1. Not all rights of humans are categorized as “human rights.”
“Human rights” refers to a special and narrow category of rights held by human beings. As William A. Edmundson explains in his book, An Introduction to Rights, “Perhaps the best way of understanding the emphasis given to being human in the phrase ‘human rights’ is this: Human rights recognize extraordinarily special, basic interests, and this sets them apart from rights, even moral rights generally” (emphasis original).
2. International human rights have their roots in modern Christianity.
Some scholars, such as Harvard professor Samuel Moyn, argue that the modern human rights movement was “prefigured and inspired by a defense of the dignity of the human person that first arose in Christian churches and religious thought in the years just prior to the outbreak of the war.”
As Moyn observes, “It turns out to be quite difficult to find non-Christians who enthused about human rights, and more especially their basis in human dignity, in the age [before the 1940s].
“The uncomfortable reality [for secularists] is that Christianity and human rights are far more closely related than their respective critics imagine,” Nick Spencer points out, adding:
[T]he fact remains that Christianity and human rights are cousins of some description. Superficially very different—one an ancient religion, the other a well worked through legal systemisation—beneath the surface, they not only share intellectual ancestors but also a particular vision of human nature and the human good, and a particular attitude to weakness and to power.
3. Recognition and enforcement of international human rights began in the 20th century.
While there were important events in human rights history before the 20th century, the foundation of contemporary human rights law was primarily developed during the 30-year period between World War I in 1918 and the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
The most successful effort of advancing human rights at the international level, says Seth Mohney, was the development of the minority treaty system. The Allied Powers required treaties and declarations in several European countries to contain minority clauses of various forms. These minority treaties guaranteed such protections as full and complete protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants of the country or region concerned, without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion.
“These treaties signaled the first multilateral efforts to protect the rights of specific groups of people at the international level,” Andrew Clapham writes in Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction.
4. Universal recognition of human rights ramped up during World War II.
Before the 1940s, few documents were recognized internationally as applying to all people at all times in all nations. During World War II, the push for universal recognition of inalienable human rights was aided by the Atlantic Charter and by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech before the United States Congress in 1941. These ideals were also transmitted in a pamphlet, “The United Nations Fight for the Four Freedoms.”
Nazi atrocities highlighted a need for human rights to be established as an international legal status. More than 1,300 American nongovernmental organizations joined in placing newspaper ads calling for human rights to be an integral part of any future international organization and called for the United Nations Charter to include a clear and substantive commitment to human rights.
5. The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights became the foundational document.
On April 25, 1945, representatives from 46 nations gathered in San Francisco to form the United Nations. They responded to the demand by mentioning human rights five times in the U.N. Charter. The charter also established a commission “for the promotion of human rights.” This newly created Commission on Human Rights spent three years drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
After the committee completed its work, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was submitted to the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which held 81 meetings and considered 168 formal resolution on the declaration. Forty-eight nations voted for the Declaration, eight countries abstained (the Soviet bloc countries, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia), and two countries were absent.
6. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists 55 human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says people have at least 55 human rights, including:
- To life.
- To liberty.
- To security of person.
- To be free from slavery.
- To be free from involuntary servitude.
- To be free from torture.
- To be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
- To be free from arbitrary interference with one’s privacy, family, home, or correspondence.
- To be free from attacks upon one’s honor and reputation.
- To the protection of the law against such interference or attacks upon one’s privacy, honor, or reputation.
- To marry.
- To found a family.
- To free and full consent in choosing one’s spouse.
- To freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
- To change one’s religion or belief.
- To manifest, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.
7. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights inspired the legal system of human rights, but is not legally binding.
Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not legally binding, the document has inspired more than 80 treaties and declarations, numerous regional conventions, domestic bills, and constitutional provisions, which together constitute a comprehensive legally binding system for the promotion and protection of human rights.
8. The United States only began making human rights a full foreign-policy priority in the mid-1970s.
In 1974, a congressional subcommittee issued a report, “Human Rights in the World Community: A Call for U.S. Leadership.” The report criticized the existing approach in American foreign policy and made the case for elevating human rights:
The human rights policy is not accorded the high priority it deserves in our country’s foreign policy. Too often it becomes invisible on the vast foreign policy horizon of political, economic and military affairs. . . . We have disregarded human rights for the sake of our assumed interests . . . Human rights should not be the only or even always the major factor in foreign policy decision-making. But a higher priority is urgently needed, if future American leadership in the world is to mean what it has traditionally meant—encouragement to men and women everywhere who cherish individual freedom.
Over the next few years Congress enacted a series of bills that resulted in Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act. That Act established that it would be “a principal goal of the foreign policy of the United States to promote the increased observance of internationally recognized human rights by all countries.” The effect of this law is that human rights considerations must be included as part of foreign policy decision-making.
9. Why the U.S. places a priority on religious liberty as a human right.
In 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo established the Commission on Unalienable Rights, an independent, nonpartisan advisory body. Its purpose was “not to discover new principles, but to furnish advice to the Secretary for the promotion of individual liberty, human equality, and democracy through U.S. foreign policy.” In its report, the commission explains why the United States should give priority to certain human rights, and why religious liberty should be among them:
Governments that respect unalienable rights [i.e., human rights] preserve the ability of those who live under them to determine and pursue, consistent with the like right of others, what is fitting, proper, and good. Some mistakenly suppose that so generous a conception of liberty must rest on skepticism about salvation and justice. Why give people freedom to choose if God’s will and the imperatives of justice are knowable? In fact, a certain skepticism is involved, but it is directed not at faith and justice but at the capacity of government officials to rule authoritatively on the deepest and greatest questions. The Madisonian view of religious liberty—like the view to which Jefferson gave expression in his Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom—proceeds from a theistic premise about the sources of human dignity even as it denies the state the power to dictate final answers about ultimate matters.