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Human Rights - History

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Modern human rights law developed out of customs and theories that established the rights of the individual in relation to the state. These rights were expressed in legal terms in documents such as the English Bill of Rights of 1688, the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776, the U.S. Bill of Rights added to the U.S. Constitution in 1789, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen added to the French Constitution in 1791.

Human rights law also grew out of earlier systems of INTERNATIONAL LAW. These systems, developed largely during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were predicated on the doctrine of national sovereignty, according to which each nation retains sole power over its internal affairs without interference from other nations. As a result, early international law involved only relations between nation-states and was not concerned with the ways in which states treated their own citizens.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the notion of national sovereignty came under increasing challenge, and reformers began to press for international humanitarian standards. In special conferences such as the Hague Conference of 1899 and 1907, nations created laws governing the conduct of wars and handling of prisoners.

Not until after WORLD WAR II (1939–45) did the international community create international treaties establishing human rights standards. The United Nations, created in 1945, took the lead in this effort. In its charter, or founding document, the United Nations developed objectives for worldwide human rights standards. It called for equal rights and self-determination for all peoples, as well as "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion" (art. 55). The UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, also became an important human rights document.

To develop the U.N. Charter into an international code of human rights law, the international community created a number of multilateral human rights treaties. The two most significant of these are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, both put into effect in 1976. These treaties forbid discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. The two covenants, along with the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and an accord called the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), constitute a body of law that has been called the International Bill of Human Rights.

The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights includes protections for the right to life, except after conviction for serious crime (art. 6); freedom from torture and other cruel and inhumane punishment (art. 7); freedom from slavery and prohibition from slave trade (art. 8); freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention (art. 9); humane treatment of prisoners (art. 10); freedom of movement and choice of residence (art. 12); legal standards, including equality before the law, fair hearings before an impartial tribunal, PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE, a prompt and fair trial, the RIGHT TO COUNSEL, and the right to review by a higher court; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (art. 18); and FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION, including association in trade unions (art. 22).

The Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights protects additional rights, many of which have yet to be realized in poorer countries. These include the right to work (art. 6); to just wages and safe working conditions (art. 7); to social security and social insurance (art. 9); to a decent standard of living and freedom from hunger (art. 11); to universal basic education (art. 13); and to an enjoyment of the cultural life and scientific progress of the country.

The international community has also adopted many other human rights treaties. These include the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948); the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1953); the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery (revised 1953); the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment (1987); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990); and the Convention on Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers (2003).

In addition to worldwide human rights agreements, countries have also established regional conventions. These include the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

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