Discussion over History and Evolution of Human Rights and Its Instruments

Discussion over History and Evolution of Human Rights and Its Instruments


This article will explain about Human Rights and different aspect of Human Right’s history and the instruments of international human rights.


When we see the word “Human Rights” We used to think that it talks about certain rights which are related to individual man or women because they are human being, it’s only because they are human being and no other reason is there. But its may not be true because every human being born with some rights and certain rights not those all rights are called human rights. But in a simple word “Human rights are those rights without witch there can be no dignity.”[1] If we want to evaluate the history of the concept of human right then we can say that the history of western civilization helped to shape the conception of human rights of twentieth century. It begins with the philosophers and rulers of ancient Grease and it concludes with the aftermath of World War II when the United Nations established the universal declaration of Human Rights.[2]

Definition of Human Right:

There are many synonyms of this word “Human Rights”. But they are restrictive in their meaning. For example, in French ‘Les droits publics’ in the English ‘The right of the subject’ in United States ‘civil rights’ [3]but none of this expression is cover all the rights explain by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) . UDHR not only includes the traditional civil and political rights but also the more recently recognized economic, social and cultural rights.[4]So we can say liberty and freedom of expression; and social, cultural and economic rights including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, and the right to work and receive an education this are also included in human right.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) sets out a list of over two dozen specific human rights that countries should respect and protect. These specific rights can be divided into six or more families they are :[5]

1.Security right : This rights protect people against crimes such as murder, massacre, torture, and rape.

2.Process rights : That protect against abuses of the legal system such as imprisonment without trial, secret trials, and excessive punishments.

3.Liberty rights : It talks about freedoms in areas such as belief, expression, association, assembly and movement.

4.Political rights : It protect the liberty to participate in politics through actions such as communicating, assembling, protesting, voting, and serving in public office.

5.Equality rights : This right guarantee equal citizenship, equality before the law, and non discrimination.

6.Social (or“welfare”) rights :  This are for  require provision of education to all children and protections against severe poverty and starvation.

There is also a  right name Group rights but The Universal Declaration does not include group rights, but subsequent treaties do. Group rights Include protections of ethnic groups against genocide and the ownership by countries of their national territories and resources. [6]

This all idea give a general description of the contemporary concept of human right.

On the other hand  in different convention we can find  different concept of human right, for example, in 1950 The European Convention on Human Rights says “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law” (Article 2.1).[7] And also According to Amnesty International, ‘Human rights are basic rights and freedoms that all people are entitled to regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, race, religion, language, or other status.”[8]

All this are very general idea of human right. But actually there is not any specific definition from where we can define human rights in full form. Because human right is also about morality and norms and there is a lot of disagreement among countries and cultures about these matters.

If we summerized all the difinationss then we can say ,human rights refers to the concept of human beings as having universal rights, or status, regardless of legal jurisdiction or other localizing factors, such as ethnicity and nationality. Legally, human rights are defined in international law and covenants, and further, in the domestic laws of many states. However, for many people the doctrine of human rights goes beyond law and forms a fundamental moral basis for regulating the contemporary geopolitical order.

History of Human Right:

The conception of human begins with the philosophers and rulers of ancient Greece and concludes with the aftermath of World War II when the United Nations establishes and the universal declaration of Human Rights. The declaration, created in 1948, marks the point at which Western countries officially placed human rights on the international agenda.[9]

It was in ancient Greece where the concept of human rights began to take a greater meaning than the prevention of arbitrary persecution. Human rights became synonymous with natural rights, rights that spring from natural law. According to the Greek tradition of Socrates and Plato, natural law is law that reflects the natural order of the universe, essentially the will of the gods who control nature. But there are fundamental differences between human rights today and natural rights of the past.

The next fundamental philosophy of human rights arose from the idea of positive law. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) saw natural law as being very vague and hollow and too open to vast differences of interpretation. Therefore under positive law, instead of human rights being absolute, they can be given, taken away, and modified by a society to suit its needs.[10]

Jeremy Bentham, another legal positivist sums up the essence of the positivist view: Right is a child of law; from real laws come real rights, but from imaginary law, from “laws of nature,” come imaginary rights….Natural rights is simple nonsense. [11](J.Bentham, Anarchichical Follies, quotes in N.Kinsella, “Tomorrow’s Rights in the Mirror of History” in G. Gall, ed., Civil Liberties in Canada (Toronto:Butterworths, 1982), p.17.)[12].

Here we can understand that the transfer of abstract ideas about human rights and their relation to the will of nature into concrete laws is exemplified best by various legal documents that specifically described these rights in details and they are:

  • British Magna Carta 1215
  • French Declaration of  the Rights of Man 1789
  • American bill of rights 1789
  • The Geneva convention 1864

It seems that the origins of the modern concept are to be found in the English, American and French revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

1. The English experience:

If we summarized the English experience we find that, dating back to King John and the first Magna Carta in 1215, the English have a history of distrusting their monarchs.  But as the other kings and queens of Europe began to grow into absolute, rather than limited, monarchies, English rulers begin to realize their weakness.  Trying to assume the power of Parliament, King James I hold on to divine right. When his son, Charles, follows suit, Parliament, and in particular on puritan member, Oliver Cromwell, take offense.  When Charles refuses to budge, Civil War and execution follow, frightening the rest of Europe.  Though peace and the limited monarchy both return, a haunting precedent had been set:  the people have the power to potentially overthrow the government.

One of the revolutions of that time Glorious revolution of 1688 was significant because it provided a president could be removed by ‘popular’ will if they failed to observe the requirements of constitutional legitimacy[13].

2. American expression:

In the 18th century Seeking to disengage the colonies from British rule following dissatisfaction over the levels of taxation and lack of representation in the British parliament, the American Founding Father sought justification in the social contract and natural rights theories of Locke and the French philosophies. In year 1776 in the declaration of The American declaration of independence Thomas Jefferson talk about the protection of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. [14]He also indicates about individual rights which the state was obliged to protect. Later on in The Virginia Declaration of right George Mason include some specific liberty in The American declaration of independence[15]. There included freedom of the press the free exercise of religion and obligation. And the drafter of the US constitution influenced by Mason’s Virginia Declaration .So, it effected many amendments of constitutions also.

3. French revolution:

The French Revolution was a time of great turmoil in French history. It began in 1789 and ended in 1799[16]. During the French Revolution, the previous absolute monarchy and the entire social three estates system was overthrown. People in the third estate were especially tired of being treated like this and wanted radical changes right away. Louis XVI was the first king to come into power at the start of the revolution. He was a very weak and indecisive ruler, which was terrible for the country at that point. He also had a wife, Marie-Antoinette from Austria, who was obsessed with spending money. Together, they put the country into debt with over 2 billion livres. Despite national lack of food, they always ate immense amounts, and spent money which didn’t even belong to them, but to the country. This put the country into a worse state, and eventually, both Louis

XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed.

The Third Estate was tired of being treated how they were. They wanted more respect and an actual say in the government. They were given a tithe for their crops, which caused them starvation and malnutrition. They had the most trouble paying for bread, while others feasted away. Finally, they began violent revolts.

Then, in 1794, after Louis XVI’s execution, a ruler named Robespierre came into power. He was a terrible ruler, who killed thousands of men by the guillotine[17]. There weren’t fair trials, and anyone suspected was killed. Finally, he was arrested and overthrown one year later, and the New Constitution, with much newer ideas that gave people unalienable right was issued.

After many reforms, and new enlightened ideas, the revolution was over. Clearly, with all of these new reforms, the third estate had gotten exactly what they wanted and succeeded in the revolution. There were new ideas such as enlightenment, citizenship, nationalism, and inalienable rights.[18]

From these three revolutions we understand that documents like Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791) are the written precursors to many of today’s human rights documents. Yet many of these documents, when originally translated into policy, excluded women, people of color, and members of certain social, religious, economic, and political groups.

Contemporary international human rights law and the establishment of the United Nations (UN) have important historical antecedents. Efforts in the 19th century to prohibit the slave trade and to limit the horrors of war are prime examples. In 1919, countries established the International Labor Organization (ILO) [19]to oversee treaties protecting workers with respect to their rights, including their health and safety. Concern over the protection of certain minority groups was raised by the League of Nations at the end of the First World War. However, this organization for international peace and cooperation, created by the victorious European allies, never achieved its goals. The League floundered because the United States refused to join and because the League failed to prevent Japan’s invasion of China and Manchuria (1931) and Italy’s attack on Ethiopia (1935). It finally died with the onset of the Second World War (1939).  [20]

The United Nations

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.” [21]

Governments then committed themselves to establishing the United Nations, with the primary goal of bolstering international peace and preventing conflict. People wanted to ensure that never again would anyone be unjustly denied life, freedom, food, shelter, and nationality. The essence of these emerging human rights principles was captured in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address when he spoke of a world founded on four essential freedoms: freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear.[22]The calls came from across the globe for human rights standards to protect citizens from abuses by their governments, standards against which nations could be held accountable for the treatment of those living within their borders. These voices played a critical role in the San Francisco meeting that drafted the United Nations Charter in 1945. [23]

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

Member States[24] of the United Nations pledged to promote respect for the human rights of all. To advance this goal, the UN established a Commission on Human Rights [25]and charged it with the task of drafting a document spelling out the meaning of the fundamental rights and freedoms proclaimed in the Charter. The Commission, guided by Eleanor Roosevelt’s forceful leadership, captured the world’s attention.

On December 10, 1948, the UNIVERSAL Declaration of human rights (UDHR) was adopted by the 56 members of the United Nations. The vote was unanimous, although eight nations chose to abstain. [26]

The UDHR, commonly referred to as the international Magna Carta, extended the revolution in international law ushered in by the United Nations Charter – namely, that how a government treats its own citizens is now a matter of legitimate international concern, and not simply a domestic issue. It claims that all rights are interdependent and indivisible. [27]

The influence of the UDHR has been significant. Its principles have been incorporated into the constitutions of most of the more than 185 nations now in the UN. [28]

From time to time may be the face of human right developed but basically this concept of human right changed for the improvisation of the concept that inherit from decade to decade.

International Human Rights Instruments:

Human right can be catagorized into two catagories , they are global instruments and reginal instruments .

  • “Global instruments allow any state in the world to be a party” [29].
  • “Reginal instruiments regional instruments are restricted to states in a particular region of the world” .[30]

There are many international and regional human rights instruments and many different mechanisms established to protect and promote human rights. Many of these are relevant to conflict and post-conflict environments and forthe women, peace and security agenda.

There are seven core international human rights treaties[31]. Each of these treaties has established a committee of experts to monitor implementation of the treaty provisions by its States parties. These treaties are known as the core international human rights treaties:

  1. Human Rights Committee ( HRC)
  2. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Right ( CESCR)
  3. Committee on Elimination of racial Discrimination (CERD)
  4. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women  (CEDAW)
  5. Committee against Torture(CAT)
  6. Committee on the  Rights of the Child (CRC)
  7. Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW)

Some of the important instruments are discussed bellow:

    • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR):

ICESCR was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. [32]It commits states parties to promote and protect a wide range of economic, social and cultural rights, including rights relating to work in just and favorable conditions, to social protection, to an adequate standard of living, to education and to enjoyment of the benefits of cultural freedom and scientific progress. The implementation of CESCR by its States parties is monitored by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Right.[33]

    • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR):

ICCPR is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. The Human Rights Committee is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its State parties.[34]

    • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC):

CRC was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989. THE Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by its State parties.[35]

    • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women(CEDAW):

CEDAW was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. The Convention is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, [36]it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) watches over the progress for women made in those countries that are the States parties to the Convention.

There are other lots of instruments in international human rights like International Convention on Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICMRW), International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment OR Punishment etc, but the instruments discussed above are more important and well known.

Evolution of past, present and future of Human Rights:

If we try to evaluate the past and present of human rights history then we can say that the idea we get from history about human right is not at a halt. But it actually develops with the mode of political thoughts in response to the change in international environment. The first 50 years of the human right movement were handicapped by the Cold War. In the 1990s [37]there was a period of growth and improvement in human rights law and institutions. But its is true that within the United Nations some of the countries that have the worst human rights records do not participate in the UN human rights system. But in the other side , Europe and the America  do somewhat better. They have their own human rights courts. they are more powerful, and enjoy more serious and sincere participation by many of their members. But if any country want to promoting and implement human right then it need more capable, responsive, efficient, and non-corrupt governments, dealing with failed states, increasing economic productivity ,improving the power and status of women, improving education, and managingpower to control international tensions and conflicts. But it’s a matter of opportunity that Human rights are more widely accepted than they have ever been. They have become part of the currency of international relations, and most countries participate in the human rights system.


If we want to find the basic purpose of the International law of humna rights then we can say this law is to improve the human condition by protecting those human rights and freedom that make life worth living. But there are still remain many need of law and implimentation  to fulfill the purpose of human right. Some treties that adopted by United nation and other organization are still not enough some of there machanisum and function is still weak and need to be more strong . So this is now the demand of time, that the next genaration will come forward and take this as a challenge to overcome all this shortcomings of human rights and use it for the well being of the people.



1.Brems, Eva, 2009. “Human Rights: Minimum and Maximum Perspectives,” Human Rights Law Review, 9: 343–372.

2.Cranston, M., 1973. What Are Human Rights?, London: Bodley Head.

3.Henkin, L., Neuman, G., Orentlicher, D. and Leebron, D. (eds.), 2001. Human Rights, New York: Foundation Press.

4.Alston, P., 1999. Promoting Human Rights through Bills of Rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press

5.Scott Davidson,1933.Human Rights ,Open University press

6.Jhon Humphery ,1989Non Distant Millennium: The International Law of Human Rights. Paris,United nations Educational,Scientific and Cultural Organigation

7.Tuhin Malik,2000.Human Rights Law . Bangladesh : Legal Education & Training Institute Bangladesh Bar Counsil.


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[1]See, John Humphery, No Distant Millennium: The international law of human rights ,1989.p 20

[2]See, Hilary Poole, Human Rights :The Essential Reference,p1

[3] See, Hilary Poole, Human Rights :The Essential Reference,p1

[4] See, John Humphery, No Distant Millennium: The international law of human rights ,1989.p 21

[5] See, Hilary Poole, Human Rights :The Essential Reference,p1

[6] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rights-human/#future

[7] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/aunchart.htm

[8] http://www.amnestyusa.org/human-rights/page.do?id=1031002

[9] Hilary Poole, Human Rights :The Essential Reference,p1

[10] http://library.thinkquest.org/C0126065/hrhistory.html

[11] http://library.thinkquest.org/C0126065/hrhistory.html

[12] http://library.thinkquest.org/C0126065/hrhistory.html

[13] See, Scott Davidson, Human Rights 1954, p3

[14] See, Scott Davidson, Human Rights 1954, p4.

Thomas Jefferson, “We hold these truths to be self evident , that all me n  are created equal , that  they are endowed by their creator with certain  un alienable rights, that among these Life ,Liberty  and the  pursuit of happiness – That to secure these rights , Governments are instituted among  Men .driving  their just powers from of government  becomes destructive of these ends , it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it”

[15] See, Scott Davidson, Human Rights 1954, p4.

[16] See, Scott Davidson, Human Rights 1954, p4

[17] See, Scott Davidson, Human Rights 1954, p5

[18] http://www.fsmitha.com/h3/h33-fr.html , “The French Revolution” by Frank E. Smitha (Macro history and World Report)

[19] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/hreduseries/hereandnow/Part-5/6_glossary.htm#Anchor-International-46407

[20] See, Scott Davidson, Human Rights 1954, p9

[21] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/hreduseries/hereandnow/Intro/using.htm

[22] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/hreduseries/hereandnow/Intro/using.htm

[23] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/hreduseries/hereandnow/Part-5/6_glossary.htm#Anchor-United-21200

[24] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/hreduseries/hereandnow/Part-5/6_glossary.htm#Anchor-Member-41146

[25] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/hreduseries/hereandnow/Part-5/6_glossary.htm#Anchor-Commission-26674

[26] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/hreduseries/hereandnow/Part-5/6_glossary.htm#Anchor-Universal-34498

[27] See, Scott Davidson, Human Rights 1954, p11

[28] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/hreduseries/hereandnow/Part-5/6_glossary.htm#Anchor-Universal-34498

[29] http://www.peacewomen.org/themes_theme.php?id=42&subtheme=true

[30] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_human_rights_instruments

[31] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/aunchart.htm

[32] http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cescr/index.htm

[33] http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cescr/index.htm

[34] http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/index.htm

[35] http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm

[36] http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cedaw.htm

[37] See, Scott Davidson, Human Rights 1954, p177