Evolution and Characteristics of Human Rights

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  • Recently Human Rights Day was celebrated with the theme “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights” to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.


  • G.S II- Governance, Transparency & Accountability, Citizens Charters.


What Are Human Rights?

  • Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.
  • Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.  Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.
A historical outline
  • The idea that people have inherent rights has its roots in many cultures, and traditions.
  • We can see from numerous examples of revered leaders and influential codes of practice that the values embodied in human rights are neither a “Western creation” nor a 20th-century invention. They are a response to universal human needs and for the search for justice.
  • All human societies have had ideals and systems of ensuring justice, whether in their oral or written traditions, although not all of these traditions have survived.
  • In 539 B.C., the armies of Cyrus the Great, the first king of ancient Persia, conquered the city of Babylon. He freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. These and other decrees were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder in the Akkadian language with cuneiform script.
  • This ancient record has now been recognized as the world’s first charter of human rights. It is translated into all six official languages of the United Nations and its provisions parallel the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • The African worldview ‘ubuntu' captures the essence of what it means to be human. Ubuntu emphasises respect for all members of the community, hospitality and generosity. The Ubuntu notion is summed up in this: “A person is a person through other people”.
  • A Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt (c. 2000 BCE) reportedly gave instructions to subordinates that “When a petitioner arrives from Upper or Lower Egypt, … make sure that all is done according to the law, that custom is observed and the right of each man respected”
  • The idea of human rights emerged stronger after World War II. The extermination by Nazi Germany of over six million Jews, Sinti and Romani (gypsies), homosexuals, and persons with disabilities horrified the world.
  • Trials were held in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II, and officials from the defeated countries were punished for committing war crimes, “crimes against peace,” and “crimes against humanity.
Characteristics of human rights
  • Philosophers may continue to argue about the nature of human rights, but the international community started its astonishing commitment to human rights through the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, the international community has established the UDHR's powerful concepts in numerous international, regional and domestic legal instruments.
  • The UDHR was not intended to be legally binding, but the establishment of its norms in numerous subsequent binding treaties (otherwise known as ‘conventions' or ‘covenants') makes the legal standing of its norms unquestionable today.  According to these principles:

Human rights are inalienable.

  • This means that people cannot lose them because they are linked to the very fact of human existence, they are inherent to all human beings. In particular circumstances some – though not all – may be suspended or restricted.
  • For example, if someone is found guilty of a crime, his or her liberty can be taken away; or in times of national emergency, a government may declare this publicly and then derogate from some rights, for example in imposing a curfew restricting freedom of movement.

Human rights are universal.

  • Which means that they apply equally to all people everywhere in the world, and with no time limit. Every individual is entitled to enjoy his or her human rights without distinction of “race” or ethnic background, colour, sex, sexual orientation, disability, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, birth or another status.
  • It should be noted that the universality of human rights does not in any way threaten the rich diversity of individuals or of different cultures. Universality is not synonymous with uniformity. Diversity requires a world where everyone is equal and equally deserving of respect.
  • Human rights serve as minimum standards applying to all human beings; each state and society is free to define and apply higher and more specific standards.
  • For example, in the field of economic, social and cultural rights we find the obligation to undertake steps to achieve progressively the full realisation of these rights, but there is no stipulated position on raising taxes to facilitate this. It is up to each country and society to adopt such policies in the light of their own circumstances.

Human rights are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.

  • This means that different human rights are intrinsically connected and cannot be viewed in isolation from each other. The enjoyment of one right depends on the enjoyment of many other rights and no one right is more important than the rest.
International Human Rights Law
  • International human rights law lays down the obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.
  • One of the great achievements of the United Nations is the creation of a comprehensive body of human rights law—a universal and internationally protected code to which all nations can subscribe and all people aspire.
  • The United Nations has defined a broad range of internationally accepted rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. It has also established mechanisms to promote and protect these rights and to assist states in carrying out their responsibilities.
  • The foundations of this body of law are the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1945 and 1948, respectively. 
  • Since then, the United Nations has gradually expanded human rights law to encompass specific standards for women, children, persons with disabilities, minorities and other vulnerable groups, who now possess rights that protect them from discrimination that had long been common in many societies.
Economic, social and cultural rights
  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights entered into force in 1976. The human rights that the Covenant seeks to promote and protect include:
    • the right to work in just and favourable conditions;
    • the right to social protection, to an adequate standard of living and to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental well-being;
    • the right to education and the enjoyment of the benefits of cultural freedom and scientific progress.
Civil and political rights
  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entered into force in 1976.
  • The Covenant deals with such rights as freedom of movement; equality before the law; the right to a fair trial and presumption of innocence; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; peaceful assembly; freedom of association; participation in public affairs and elections; and protection of minority rights.
  • It prohibits arbitrary deprivation of life; torture, cruel or degrading treatment or punishment; slavery and forced labour; arbitrary arrest or detention; arbitrary interference with privacy; war propaganda; discrimination; and advocacy of racial or religious hatred.

Human Rights Council

  • The Human Rights Council, established on 15 March 2006 by the General Assembly, replaced the 60-year-old UN Commission on Human Rights as the key UN intergovernmental body responsible for human rights.
  • The Council is made up of 47 State representatives and is tasked with strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe by addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them, including responding to human rights emergencies.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 

  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights exercises principal responsibility for UN human rights activities. The High Commissioner is mandated to respond to serious violations of human rights and to undertake preventive action.
  • The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the focal point for United Nations human rights activities. It serves as the secretariat for the Human Rights Council, the treaty bodies (expert committees that monitor treaty compliance) and other UN human rights organs.

Human Rights and the UN System

  • Human right is a cross-cutting theme in all UN policies and programmes in the key areas of peace and security, development, humanitarian assistance, and economic and social affairs. As a result, virtually every UN body and the specialized agency is involved to some degree in the protection of human rights.
  • Some examples are the right to development, which is at the core of the Sustainable Development Goals; the right to food, championed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, labour rights, defined and protected by the International Labour Organization, gender equality, which is promulgated by UN Women, the rights of children, indigenous peoples, and disabled persons.
  • Human rights day is observed every year on 10 December.

Human Rights Conventions

  • A series of international human rights treaties and other instruments adopted since 1945 have expanded the body of international human rights law. They include the Convention on the:
    1. Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948),
    2. the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965),
    3. the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979),
    4. the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and
    5. the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006).
What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)?
  • In 1948, following the traumatic events of World War II, representatives from the 50 member states of the United Nations banded together to create a list of the rights everyone around the world should enjoy.
  • Under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt, then-first lady of the United States the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was born.
  • Article 1 states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
  • There are 30 actions in the Declaration of Human Rights – 30 rights of everyone on this planet. The remaining articles include the right to asylum, the right to freedom from torture, the right to free speech and the right to education. 
  • It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected. The UDHR, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, form the International Bill of Human Rights.

NGOs working for Human Rights Cause

Amnesty International

  • Amnesty International is a global movement of more than seven million people who are independent of any type of political ideology, religion or economic interest and who take injustice personally. The movement campaigns for the world in which human rights are enjoyed by all.

Human Rights Watch

  • Human Rights Watch is an international human rights organization that investigates and reports on abuses of human rights around the world.

Civil Rights Defenders

  • Civil Rights Defenders was established in 1982 in Sweden as an independent expert organization, with the mission to defend the civil and political rights of people and empower human rights defenders at risk around the world.

Human Rights Without Frontiers International

  • Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) is an international non-profit organization that promotes respect for human rights around the globe and advocates for democracy, the rule of law and social justice. Based in Brussels, Belgium, the HRFW became one of the most active organizations promoting human rights in EU institutions and shaping European policies towards human rights.

Anti-Slavery International

  • Anti-Slavery International is an international organization committed to eliminating all forms of slavery and similar practices. It is one of the oldest human rights-based organizations in the world that bases its work on the UN treaties against slavery to influence decision-makers and inspire global change.

International Federation for Human Rights

  • The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) is an international human rights non-governmental organization active in defending and promoting respect for civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 Human Rights Foundation

  • The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a non-profit organization that promotes and protects human rights on a global level while focusing on closed societies. The organization follows the principles of all people being entitled freedom to self-determination, freedom from tyranny, the right to speak freely and to leave and enter their countries.


Impact of World War 2 on the cause of Human Rights
  • It was the events of World War II that really propelled human rights onto the international stage. The terrible atrocities committed in this war – including the holocaust and massive war crimes – sparked the emergence of a further body of international law and, above all, the creation of human rights as we know them today.
  • The Charter of the United Nations signed on 26 June 1945, states that the fundamental objective of the United Nations is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women”.
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was drawn up by the UN Commission on Human Rights, one of the organs of the United Nations, and was adopted by the General Assembly on the 10 December 1948.
  • The UDHR is undoubtedly groundbreaking and continues to serve as the most important global human rights instrument. Although not setting out to be legally binding, the UDHR has served as the inspiration behind numerous commitments to human rights, whether at the national, regional or international level. Since then, a series of key instruments to safeguard its principles have also been drawn up and agreed by the international community.
Human Rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
  • It is increasingly recognized that human rights are essential to achieve sustainable development. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) served as a proxy for certain economic and social rights but ignored other important human rights linkages. By contrast, human rights principles and standards are now strongly reflected in an ambitious new global development framework, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  • The SDGs are the result of the most consultative and inclusive process in the history of the United Nations. Grounded in international human rights law, the agenda offers critical opportunities to further advance the realization of human rights for all people everywhere, without discrimination.
  • Alongside a wide range of social, economic and environmental objectives, the 2030 Agenda promises “more peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence” with attention to democratic governance, rule of law, access to justice and personal security (in Goal 16), as well as an enabling international environment (in Goal 17 and throughout the framework).
  • It, therefore, covers issues related to all human rights, including economic, civil, cultural, political, social rights and the right to development.
A Historical Outline of Human Rights from an Indian Perspective 

Ancient India

  • The Rig Veda, the oldest document of the Indians declared all human beings are equal & respect the dignity of human rights.
  • The “Atharva Veda” advocated the same thing. In addition to this, ancient Indian stressed the principle that one person's right is another person's duty.

Human Rights in Medieval Times in India

  • As the medieval period signifies the Muslim era in India. In the pre-Mughal period the series of social, cultural, political and religious rights existed but with the advent of Mughal, the Hindus were stressed badly. The concept of human rights got lost in the dark. But with the entry of Akbar’s (1526-1605) period, once again great regard given to the social, religious and political rights.
  • In his religious policy, Din-E-Ilahi (divine religion), he tried to preach the idea of secularism and religious tolerance. Similarly, Various religious movements like Bhakti (Hindu) and Sufi (Islamic) made a remarkable contribution to the emergence of human rights which at times suppressed by the other Mughal Empires like Aurangzeb, Babar, Humayun etc.

Human Rights in Modern India

  • This period starts with the advent of the British empire. The process of Indian administration started by the Britishers with the introduction of the Regulating Act of 1773.
  • Under it, Indian were suppressed by the Britishers completely in context to social, economical, political & religious rights in all the sphere of life.
  • They were told that they did not deserve any rights. Basic rights such as rights to life & livelihood, right to freedom, right to expression, right to equality, right to preach etc were denied to them. In such an atmosphere, the Indian leaders & people feel that their rights had been lost in the hands of the colonial rule, so they thought of diverting back to fight for their rights.
  • Perhaps the first explicit demand for fundamentals rights appeared in the Constitution of India Bill 1895. The Bill guaranteed every Indian the right to expression, right to equality before the law, right to property, right to personal liberty, right to education etc.
  • A series of the resolution were passed between 1917 & 1919 for demanding civil rights & equality. Another major development was drafted by “Mrs Besant‘s Common wealth of 1925.” The Bill contained a list of seven fundamental rights –
    • Liberty of person.
    • Freedom of conscience & free profession & practice of religion.
    • Free expression of opinion.
    • Free elementary education.
    • Use of roads, public places, courts of justice & the like.
    • Equality before the Law, irrespective of consideration of nationality.
    • Equality of the sexes.
  • The resolution was passed in 1927 which came into effect in May 1928, Motilal Nehru as its Chairman. It is known as Nehru Report which declared that its first concern of Indians was “to secure the fundamental rights that had been denied to them.” Another achievement came in context to the fundamental right was the Karachi resolution adopted by the congress session held in March 1931.
  • The decade of 1940s was generally marked by the emergence of fundamental rights by the increased activities related to in by UN Assembly. The further stage of development of fundamental rights in the Indian context was the “Sapra Committee Report” published at the end of 1945.
  • So, after Independence, time to time various laws made, suggestions came from the various committees to enlarge the concept of fundamental rights by covering the entire human race.
National Human Rights Commission
  • It is a statutory body established on 12th October 1993 under the Protection of Human Rights Act (PHRA), 1993.
  • The Act also provides for the creation of the State Human Rights Commission as well.


  • The chairperson is a retired chief justice of India or a judge of the Supreme Court.
  • They are appointed by the President on the recommendations of a six-member committee consisting of:
  • Prime Minister (head)
  • Speaker of the Lok Sabha
  • Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha
  • Leaders of the Opposition in both the Houses of Parliament
  • Union Home Minister.

Term and removal:

  • They hold office for a term of three years or until they attain the age of 70 years, whichever is earlier.
  • The President can remove them from the office under specific circumstances.


Major Human Rights violations across the world

Philippines’ ‘War on Drugs’

  • Since taking office on June 30, 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has carried out a “war on drugs” that has led to the deaths of more than 12,000 Filipinos to date, mostly urban poor. Human Rights Watch has chronicled the brutal campaign since the beginning. 

Rohingya Crisis

  • Since late August 2017, more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, to escape the military’s large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing. The atrocities committed by Myanmar security forces including mass killings, sexual violence, and widespread arson, amount to crimes against humanity. Now, the Rohingya refugees face new dangers in overcrowded camps.

Lockdown in Kashmir

  • When India revoked Article 370 and 35A of its Constitution, Residents of Jammu and Kashmir faced 5 months of lockdown with no internet or mobile data. No access to the outside world.

Human Rights violation in Xinjiang

  • In early 2018, Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of a mass surveillance app used by police in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has subjected 13 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims to widespread restrictions, in violation of their basic rights.

War in Yemen

  • Amnesty International said three years of a major armed conflict in Yemen, as well as a blockade imposed by a Saudi-led coalition, had “shattered” access for people’s basic needs, including food and water.
  • The United Nations (UN) described the ongoing conflict in Yemen as “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time.”

Human Rights Violations of LGBT

  • Across the globe, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT) continue to face endemic violence, legal discrimination, and other human rights violations on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • From the above details, it can be concluded that the history of the concept of human rights is from the advent of human culture which grows in the Vedic period, passed through the medieval and modern times and reached its due importance with the framing of the constitution of modern nation-states including India and forms the bedrock of the ideals on which modern societies are built.

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