The spirit of human rights has been passed from generation to generation to generation either consciously or unconsciously. If today a person invokes the UN universal human rights declaration that was adopted in 1948 someone may think that this is an idea that has a universal agreement (United Nations, 1948). The origin of human rights concept is usually a question that is politically charged because as countries or regions claim to be the inventors of the idea they end up accusing others as violators of human rights. For instance, the US can claim to be promoting Human Rights (according to their definition of human rights) while at the same time accusing the USSR of abusing human rights (United Nations, Office Of The High Commissioner For Human Rights (OHCHR), 2008). This is always an attempt for certain countries to have their principles domineering over others. There is an understanding that Human rights is a ‘western’ construct however, this is not true because there are various evidences that point to human rights as a worldwide creation with various societies having there own understanding. The following are reasons to explain why human rights did not only originate from the West (Ishay, 2004).
Human Rights as a Worldwide Construct
Ethics in the modern days have borrowed a lot from the religious and secular traditions all over the world. For instance, the idea of proportionately punishing offenders as well as giving due justice was found in various regions and traditions all over the world. These include the Code of Hummurabbi of ancient Babylon; Christianity, which promoted human solidarity as well as urged moral conduct during war time. These were ideas shared also in Islam faith whereas there were other religions that were the first to defend the ecosystem such as the Hindu and the Buddhist. Lastly, the Hebrew bible upheld the sacredness of life and reciprocal entitlements. This clearly shows that human right was a concept understood and practiced worldwide even before the western cultures reached the other parts of the world (Lauren, 2003).
Some philosophical stands that rallied for the upholding of the dignity of each individual, promotion of ethical behaviour as well as social justice can be seen in various parts of the world before colonial powers arrived in those parts. For instance, in the third century B.C a leader of the Buddhist called Asoka provided freedom of worship under his rule in the sixteenth century, Chaitanya. A Hindu Philosopher campaigned against the caste system which regarded other human beings as superior to others. He therefore urged for banning of the system to promote equality. This also shows that there were philosophers in ancient times who understood the concept of human rights more or less as it is explained today and went further to champion for its implementation (Ishay, 2004).
Some people may argue that most of what is contained in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is developed from the western understanding of human rights. However, it is clear that it also envisions the practices of human rights that were carried out in ancient cultures of other parts of the world apart from the western world. In fact, the process of developing the document began in 1947 by identifying common rights shared by human beings (worldwide), a task which was done by the human rights commission. They were to examine the struggle generations as well as generations of thought, whereby the examination was to start in the ancient times and religions. This point out to the fact that there were rights in the document that are common to different parts of the world and that they were not only obtained from the western nations’ practices of human rights but also from other parts as well (Ishay, 2010).
The document that defines human rights according to the UN was composed of representatives of various countries of the world. For instance, the human Rights Commission had 18 members who were representatives of various governments. As a result, they promoted the views of their governments while contributing to the drafting of the document. The members who were not from the western countries included, China, Cuba, the Soviet Union, Egypt, India and Yugoslavia. In addition, the negotiations were characterized with controversies as each country pushed for their own agenda. For instance, the British delegation did not want human rights matters to be included to the mandate of the UN. Being a western country this faults the argument that only their views were captured in the document. Furthermore, the Chinese representative was a skilled diplomat and in many occasions came up with a solution when there was a deadlock in the negotiations (Shamnoy, 1999).
Human Rights as a Western Construct
The European Enlightenment on the understanding of human rights seems to have towered over other regions’ understanding. Although human rights were a concept generally shared worldwide the struggle for the rights began in the western world. The Britain witnessed several revolutions that resulted in the enactment of laws that upheld human rights and these included rights of women to vote, right of workers among others. America in turn used the similar discourse in its country to fight for independence to fight against racial discrimination. Such struggles spread all over the world and later led to nations agreeing on the need for a common understanding of human rights through a universal body- the UN. Capitalism that developed in Europe also created a foundation for the development of the human rights Universal language because it led to the empowerment of the private sector and restriction of government powers (Ishay, 2003).
The origin of the human rights construct is a politically charged debate because it brings into picture the struggle for global dominance between nations. There is a largely believed notion that the understanding of human rights originated from the western world. On the contrary, a lot of evidences have been brought forward that suggest that human rights concept has a worldwide origin. The evidences point out that human rights existed in different societies all over the world long before the western influence reached those societies. They also explain that the ancient religions and traditions of those societies had practices that included the respect for human rights. In addition, ancient philosophers in those ancient societies have also demonstrated that they actually understood what human rights are as conceived today. They went ahead and called for the abolishment of rules and beliefs that violated the concepts of equality, justice and respect for life. However, the ancient understanding is to some extend questioned because as much as they valued life some practices were out rightly against human rights, yet were embraced as acceptable practices such as regarding women as inferior. This supports the idea of European enlightenment. In spite of the western massive contribution to the struggle for human rights it is still clear that the idea did not only originate from them but was a worldwide practice even in ancient times.
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