Human Rights Web

A Short History
of the Human Rights Movement

Early Political, Religious, and Philosophical Sources

The concept of human rights has existed under several names in European thought for many centuries, at least since the time of King John of England. After the king violated a number of ancient laws and customs by which England had been governed, his subjects forced him to sign the Magna Carta, or Great Charter, which enumerates a number of what later came to be thought of as human rights. Among them were the right of the church to be free from governmental interference, the rights of all free citizens to own and inherit property and be free from excessive taxes. It established the right of widows who owned property to choose not to remarry, and established principles of due process and equality before the law. It also contained provisions forbidding bribery and official misconduct.

The political and religious traditions in other parts of the world also proclaimed what have come to be called human rights, calling on rulers to rule justly and compassionately, and delineating limits on their power over the lives, property, and activities of their citizens.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe several philosophers proposed the concept of "natural rights," rights belonging to a person by nature and because he was a human being, not by virtue of his citizenship in a particular country or membership in a particular religious or ethnic group. This concept was vigorously debated and rejected by some philosophers as baseless. Others saw it as a formulation of the underlying principle on which all ideas of citizens' rights and political and religious liberty were based.

In the late 1700s two revolutions occurred which drew heavily on this concept. In 1776 most of the British colonies in North America proclaimed their independence from the British Empire in a document which still stirs feelings, and debate, the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In 1789 the people of France overthrew their monarchy and established the first French Republic. Out of the revolution came the "Declaration of the Rights of Man."

The term natural rights eventually fell into disfavor, but the concept of universal rights took root. Philosophers such as Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, and Henry David Thoreau expanded the concept. Thoreau is the first philosopher I know of to use the term, "human rights", and does so in his treatise, Civil Disobedience. This work has been extremely influential on individuals as different as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. Gandhi and King, in particular, developed their ideas on non-violent resistance to unethical government actions from this work.

Other early proponents of human rights were English philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his Essay on Liberty, and American political theorist Thomas Paine in his essay, The Rights of Man.

The middle and late 19th century saw a number of issues take center stage, many of them issues we in the late 20th century would consider human rights issues. They included slavery, serfdom, brutal working conditions, starvation wages, child labor, and, in the Americas, the "Indian Problem", as it was known at the time. In the United States, a bloody war over slavery came close to destroying a country founded only eighty years earlier on the premise that, "all men are created equal." Russia freed its serfs the year that war began. Neither the emancipated American slaves nor the freed Russian serfs saw any real degree of freedom or basic rights for many more decades, however.

For the last part of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, though, human rights activism remained largely tied to political and religious groups and beliefs. Revolutionaries pointed at the atrocities of governments as proof that their ideology was necessary to bring about change and end the government's abuses. Many people, disgusted with the actions of governments in power, first got involved with revolutionary groups because of this. The governments then pointed at bombings, strike-related violence, and growth in violent crime and social disorder as reasons why a stern approach toward dissent was necessary.

Neither group had any credibility with the other and most had little or no credibility with uninvolved citizens, because their concerns were generally political, not humanitarian. Politically partisan protests often just encouraged more oppression, and uninvolved citizens who got caught in the crossfire usually cursed both sides and made no effort to listen to the reasons given by either.

Nonetheless many specific civil rights and human rights movements managed to affect profound social changes during this time. Labor unions brought about laws granting workers the right to strike, establishing minimum work conditions, forbidding or regulating child labor, establishing a forty hour work week in the United States and many European countries, etc. The women's rights movement succeeded in gaining for many women the right to vote. National liberation movements in many countries succeeded in driving out colonial powers. One of the most influential was Mahatma Ghandi's movement to free his native India from British rule. Movements by long-oppressed racial and religious minorities succeeded in many parts of the world, among them the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

In 1961 a group of lawyers, journalists, writers, and others, offended and frustrated by the sentencing of two Portugese college students to twenty years in prison for having raised their glasses in a toast to "freedom" in a bar, formed Appeal for Amnesty, 1961. The appeal was announced on May 28 in the London Observer's Sunday Supplement. The appeal told the stories of six "prisoners of conscience" from different countries and of different political and religious backgrounds, all jailed for peacefully expressing their political or religious beliefs, and called on governments everywhere to free such prisoners. It set forth a simple plan of action, calling for strictly impartial, non-partisan appeals to be made on behalf of these prisoners and any who, like them, had been imprisoned for peacefully expressed beliefs.

The response to this appeal was larger than anyone had expected. The one-year appeal grew, was extended beyond the year, and Amnesty International and the modern human rights movement were both born.

The modern human rights movement didn't invent any new principles. It was different from what preceeded it primarily in its explicit rejection of political ideology and partisanship, and its demand that governments everywhere, regardless of ideology, adhere to certain basic principles of human rights in their treatment of their citizens.

This appealed to a large group of people, many of whom were politically inactive, not interested in joining a political movement, not ideologically motivated, and didn't care about creating "the perfect society" or perfect government. They were simply outraged that any government dared abuse, imprison, torture, and often kill human beings whose only crime was in believing differently from their government and saying so in public. They (naively, according to many detractors) took to writing letters to governments and publicizing the plights of these people in hopes of persuading or embarrassing abusive governments into better behavior.

Like the early years of many movements, the early years of the modern human rights movement were rocky. "Appeal for Amnesty, 1961" had only the most rudimentary organization. The modern organization named Amnesty International gained the structure it has mostly by learning from mistakes. Early staff members operated with no oversight, and money was wasted. This led to establishing strict financial accountability. Early staff members and volunteers got involved in partisan politics while working on human rights violations in their own countries. This led to the principle that AI members were not, as a matter of practice, asked or permitted to work on cases in their country. Early campaigns failed because Amnesty was misinformed about certain prisoners. This led to the establishment of a formidable research section and the process of "adoption" of prisoners of conscience only after a thorough investigation phase.

The biggest lesson Amnesty learned, and for many the distinguishing feature of the organization, however, was to stick to what it knew and not go outside its mandate. A distinguished human rights researcher I know once said to me that, "Amnesty is an organization that does only one or two things, but does them extremely well." Amnesty International does not take positions on many issues which many people view as human rights concerns (such as abortion) and does not endorse or criticize any form of government. While it will work to ensure a fair trial for all political prisoners, it does not adopt as prisoners of conscience anyone who has used or advocated violence for any reason. It rarely provides statistical data on human rights abuses, and never compares the human rights records of one country with another. It sticks to work on behalf of individual prisoners, and work to abolish specific practices, such as torture and the death penalty.

A lot of people found this too restrictive. Many pro-democracy advocates were extremely upset when the organization dropped Nelson Mandela (at the time a black South African anti-apartheid activist in jail on trumped-up murder charges) from its list of adopted prisoners, because of his endorsing a violent struggle against apartheid. Others were upset that Amnesty would not criticize any form of government, even one which (like Soviet-style Communism, or Franco-style fascism) appeared inherently abusive and incompatible with respect for basic human rights. Many activists simply felt that human rights could be better served by a broader field of action.

Over the years combinations of these concerns and others led to formation of other human rights groups. Among them were groups which later merged to form Human Rights Watch, the first of them being Helsinki Watch in 1978. Regional human rights watchdog groups often operated under extremely difficult conditions, especially those in the Soviet Block. Helsinki Watch, which later merged with other groups to form Human Rights Watch, started as a few Russian activists who formed to monitor the Soviet Union's compliance with the human rights provisions in the Helsinki accords. Many of its members were arrested shortly after it was formed and had little chance to be active.

Other regional groups formed after military takeovers in Chile in 1973, in East Timor in 1975, in Argentina in 1976, and after the Chinese Democracy Wall Movement in 1979.

Although there were differences in philosophy, focus, and tactics between the groups, for the most part they remained on speaking terms, and a number of human rights activists belonged to more than one.

Recognition for the human rights movement, and Amnesty International in particular, grew during the 1970s. Amnesty gained permanent observer status as an NGO at the United Nations. Its reports became mandatory reading in legislatures, state departments and foreign ministries around the world. Its press releases received respectful attention, even when its recommendations were ignored by the governments involved. In 1977 it was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for its work.

Unfortunately, the Nobel Peace Prize didn't impress the governments Amnesty most wanted to get through to. That year the Argentine military dictatorship reportedly claimed that Amnesty was a front organization for the Soviet KGB. This supposedly occurred the same week that the Soviet government claimed Amnesty was run by the U.S. CIA, to the amusement of human rights activists and, presumably, embarrassment of certain people in Argentina and the Soviet Union.

(To be continued)

Created on July 14, 1994 / Last edited on January 25, 1997

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