Short Note on Origin of Human Rights

Embarking upon tracing the origin of human rights, the first question that comes to our mind is, where does the history of human rights begin? One would invite debate on two different approaches on studying its origin. One would argue whether its origin should be traced to the legacy of European Enlightenment as a result of which the concept of nation-state developed and morality became one of the tools of governance. This ultimately brought down the feudal structure and challenged the divine rights of the kings.

However, there is another theory that floated in the development of human rights history. It is believed to be encrypted in the secular and religious traditions. The concepts of progressive punishment can be traced to Hammurabi‘s Code in ancient Babylon; the Hindu and Buddhist religions offered the earliest defenses of the respect for all, extended to the ecosystem; Confucianism promoted mass education; the ancient Greeks and Romans endorsed natural laws and the capacity of each person to question; Christianity and Islam advocated brotherhood and at the same time, they endorsed a moral conduct during wars. Therefore, most of the universal cultures tended to rationalize unequal treatment of people. But it is equally true that the real foundation of human rights in the modern world lies in the European enlightenment era. During this period the concern for rights of woman and practice of slavery were addressed.

Human rights are also rooted in the philosophical laws of natural rights and natural law. Plato (427BC-348BC) can be said to be the earliest philosophers who suggested the universal ethical conduct and in a way indirectly advocated natural rights of people. Similarly Aristotle (384BC-322BC) said that justice, virtue and rights according to the different kinds of socio-politico constitution and circumstances. Cicero (106BC-43BC), one the most renowned jurist and statesman laid down the foundation of natural rights and human rights in his work ‘laws’ (52BC). According to him there should be universal human rights laws that would go beyond customary and civil laws. In Greece, there are evidences of equal freedom of speech, equality before law, right to vote, right to trade, similar rights were secured to the Romans by the ‘jus civile’ of the Roman law. Thus, it can be a general agreement that the origin of the human rights is usually agreed to be found in the Greco-Roman natural law and doctrines of Stoicism.

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