On the History of Human Rights: From the Age of Discovery to Modern Times

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My last two essays addressed the subjects of human rights and the history of human rights from ancient times to the middle ages. In this essay, we shall have a brief look at the history of human rights from the age of discovery to the present day.

The history of human rights, no matter during which period, era, or century is a complicated and difficult one to just simply and easily lay down in an essay. However, as in the previous essay, I shall try my best to cover the significant developments that have had the greatest impact on the development of the concept of human rights as we know it today.

The early modern period, also known as the Age of Discovery, from the 15th to 17th century, saw several European seafaring nations exploring, invading, and colonizing the globe with the help of their superior naval power. Such rampant and widespread colonization by the European powers gave rise to some serious debates on the need and importance of the human rights of the colonized populations.

The conquest and colonization of the Americas by Spain during the 15th and 16th centuries resulted in the heinous, grave, and inhumane human rights violations of the native population of the Americas. The documents, charters, and laws relating to human rights laid down prior to this period did nothing to stop or even mitigate such blatant and serious violations of human dignity.

The indigenous people of the Americas were subjected to harsh, cruel treatment and rampant enslavement. And such treatment of the natives went largely unnoticed and unchecked by the Spanish crown until Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Pedro de Cordoba, a Spanish missionary on the same island, spoke up against and denounced the enslavement and cruel treatment of the natives at the hands of the Spanish.

Montesinos even delivered a sermon, known as the Christmas Sermon, in which he condemned the atrocities committed against the native population. The sermon deeply influenced Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish friar, social reformer, and historian who went on to lead the movement advocating and demanding the humane treatment of the natives.

These developments compelled the Spanish crown, who had previously turned a blind eye to these issues, to take some action to protect the rights of the native people while keeping a check on the behavior of the Spanish in the Americas.

This resulted in the drafting of the Laws of Burgos, the first codified set of laws governing the behavior of the Spanish in the Americas, especially with regard to their treatment of the indigenous people. These laws were promulgated in December 1512 in the Spanish city of Burgos, and they prohibited the enslavement of indigenous people and advocated their conversion to Catholicism.

The Laws of Burgos dealt with women’s rights, child labor, accommodation, wages, etc. It led to the establishment of the labor system known as encomienda, wherein the native laborers were grouped together under a colonial head of estate, and were, in theory, entitled to benefits such as a salary or wage, accommodation, decent diet, decent working conditions, a regulated regime of work, etc. Pregnant women were exempted from heavy, intense labor, and no form of punishment could be meted out to the laborers by the estate head.

The laws called for the living accommodations of the natives to be built along with those of the Spanish, and they also respected, to some extent, traditional authorities. For instance, the Chiefs were exempted from menial and ordinary jobs and were supplied with servants.

Needless to say, most of these laws were only in theory and were probably adhered to only on a superficial level. The reality, I am sure, was quite different from the theory, wherein most of these laws, if not all, were blatantly ignored by the colonizers.

The 17th and 18th centuries saw great thinkers and philosophers further expound on the idea and concept of human rights through their writings. Philosophers such as John Locke were instrumental in developing the concept of natural rights, which he believed were derived from divinity as human beings were nothing but God’s creation.

According to Locke, these natural rights were universal, inalienable, and fundamental, ensuring that people were naturally free and equal, independent of any laws or customs of any government or culture, and did not depend upon citizenship.

In the year 1689 came the English Bill of Rights which laid down basic human rights such as freedom from cruel, unusual, and inhumane punishment.

Then came the two great revolutions that further propelled the development of human rights – The American revolution in 1776 and the French revolution in 1789. The success of these revolutions resulted in several fundamental rights and freedoms being laid down in declarations, charters, and statutes, most notably the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, both of which in essence declared that all men were created equal and possessed certain fundamental, inalienable rights which were universal in nature.

The 19th century also saw philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, and Henry David Thoreau further expound on the concept of human rights in their works. Two of the most important works on human rights from this time are Paine’s The Rights of Man and Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.

These writings went on to have a great influence on the leaders of various independence, labor, civil rights, women’s rights, minority rights, and other movements across the world. For instance, Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience had a massive influence on Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, who in turn inspired leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, etc., and several other non-violent, civil disobedience movements across the world.

Another major development in the human rights movement came in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation during the civil war, which declared that all persons held as slaves in the confederate states are henceforth free. The proclamation changed the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans from enslaved to free.

The establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863, the 1863 Lieber Code, and the 1st Geneva Convention in 1864 helped in laying down the foundation of International Humanitarian Law.

Even Pope Leo XIII‘s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (also known as Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor) addressed the topic of property rights, workers’ rights, and the rights of citizens against state intrusion.

The Ottoman Empire’s act of genocide against the Armenian people compelled the Russian, British, and French governments to advance the proposition that a state’s agent could be held criminally responsible for atrocities perpetrated against the state’s own nationals.

The two destructive and disastrous world wars once again forced us to reconsider our ways of dealing with each other.

Following the end of the First World War, the League of Nations (now known as the United Nations) was established in 1919 for the purpose of advocating disarmament, settling disputes between nations through negotiations and diplomacy, preventing war through collective security, and improving global welfare. The organization also pledged, in theory, to support and aid the newly-independent colonies during their transition from dependent colonies to independent nations.

The same year, the International Labor Organization was established as an agency of the League of Nations to safeguard and promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security, and human dignity.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This international document enshrined the rights and freedoms of all human beings and urged the member nations to promote several human, social, civil, political, and economic rights by asserting that these rights were part of the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The declaration marked the first time in history that fundamental human rights were declared to be universally respected, upheld, and protected by the rule of law. The inclusion of civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights was based on the assumption that all these different types of rights were closely linked.

In the following years, several conventions, committees, and organizations were established to protect the human rights of various groups of people. Human rights became a central aspect of the international policy of several nations and even found their way into the constitutions of the majority of the nations across the world.

In 1975, the Helsinki Accords (also called the Helsinki Declaration) was signed by 35 states, marking another landmark in the development of human rights. Two years later, President Jimmy Carter of the United States declared human rights a pillar of US foreign policy.

During the 1970s, international organizations such as Amnesty International and Red Cross rose in prominence and influence due to their constant efforts in dealing with human rights issues across the globe. The work of these organizations was acknowledged and applauded, even earning them the Nobel Peace Prize on various occasions.

In the 21st century, outside of its usual ambit, human rights have also grown to include the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for every human being and every community in its ever-growing, ever-expanding sphere.

Unfortunately, we are still a long way off from achieving ever-lasting peace and harmony. And even though, in all likelihood, we may never actually achieve it as it seems too unrealistic an expectation, it is no doubt an ideal we must continue to strive toward and live for in the hope of improving upon our state of affairs by reducing the conflicts that are inevitable.

Bringing an absolute end to all kinds of conflict in the future seems impossible and unreasonable, however, changing the manner in which we choose to deal with such conflicts is not only realistic, reasonable, and possible but is something that we can definitely achieve in the future.

We must, out of sheer necessity, strive to use diplomacy and negotiation as methods to deal with conflicts, instead of resorting to violence and bloodshed in the form of pointless wars.

Diplomacy, negotiation, tolerance, and other peaceful methods will no doubt take us further in our journey of achieving peace and harmony for humanity as a whole, and will prove more successful and effective in dealing with conflicts than would armed rebellions and revolutions, wars, and other violent methods that would only serve to destroy us further.

Therefore, we must consider it our moral, philosophical, and ethical duty to talk to each other and sort out our conflicts and differences in peace and without mindless bloodshed. If we fail at this, nothing can stop us from going back to the dark times when all we did was kill and massacre and destroy each other in the name of country and religion and race and whatnot.

Now, it is time for us to seek peace in the name of humanity. Is it a hopeless ideal? Maybe.