"The year 2008 was characterized by three trends: a growing worldwide demand for greater personal and political freedom, governmental efforts to push back on those freedoms, and further confirmation that human rights flourish best in participatory democracies with vibrant civil societies." On the downside, "pushback against demands for greater personal and political freedom continued in many countries. A disturbing number of countries imposed burdensome, restrictive, or repressive laws and regulations against NGOs [non-governmental non-profit organizations] and the media, including the Internet. Many courageous human rights defenders who peacefully pressed for their own rights and those of their fellow countrymen and women were harassed, threatened, arrested and imprisoned, killed, or were subjected to violent extrajudicial means of reprisal."
At a structural level, "human rights abuses are less a matter of local tyrants and more a symptom of deeper dysfunctions within political systems. The most serious human rights abuses came in countries where unaccountable rulers wielded unchecked power or there was government failure or collapse, often exacerbated or caused by internal or external conflict."
The English Bill of Rights of 1689 was the world's first major declaration of rights, and it influenced the American, French and all other declarations. The French Revolution adopted a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.
In the 19th century the concept spread rapidly through Europe and the colonial empires. Prime Minister William Gladstone, based British foreign policy in the late 19th century on opposition to violations of human rights, especially in the Ottoman Empire.
The Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776 proclaimed that all people are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address warned against foreign alliances and suggested the American mission to bring liberty to the world would be best served by avoiding wars, perfecting republicanism at home, and becoming a model for the world. Indeed there were no foreign entanglements until 1917.
There was a strong sense--which continues to this day--that a major American mission is to spread democracy in the world, with the belief that democratic governments will avoid abuses of human rights.
In the late 19th century Americans paid more and more attention to human rights abuses abroad. The Irish Catholics were especially angry at British refusal to allow for the independence of Ireland. American Jews were alarmed at the murderous pogroms of Jews in Russia. All Americans were angered by the brutal Spanish suppression of freedom movements in Cuba; this anger directly caused the Spanish American War in 1898, which resulted in a small American empire. In each case Americans argued that the denial of democracy was the root cause of the human rights abuses.
American were outraged by German brutality in Belgium in 1914, and by the German sinking of an unarmed passenger liner the "Lusitania" in 1915. President Woodrow Wilson forced the Germans to abandon attacks on merchant ships--and when Germany resumed in 1917, he asked Congress for a declaration of war. Americans were aghast at the Turkish slaughter of Armenians --the Armenian Genocide of 1915; for a while in 1919 there was talk of making Armenia an American protectorate, but nothing came of that.
Meanwhile, Wilson was outraged at the extreme violations of human rights and democracy in Mexico, and intervened in the civil war raging there. The intervention ended in 1916 as the greater crisis of German threats was at hand.
Promoting Wilsonianism as the expression of American idealism in world affairs, especially regarding democracy and human rights, Wilson promulgated the idealistic principles of the Fourteen Points, and at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 he exerted enormous influence to lead the world to democracy and a League of Nations that would prevent wars and promote democracy. He succeeded in part, and the LEague was created, but the U.S. Senate rejected the League and the U.S. never joined.
When Japan seized Manchuria in 1931 the U.S. refused to recognize the conquest. American sympathy was strongly on the side of the Chinese, thanks to Christian missionaries and publicists such as Pearl Buck and Henry Luce's Time magazine. When Japan launched a full-scale war in China in 1937, the U.S. funded the Chinese resistance, supplies arms, and even sent in an air force--the "Flying Tigers" under General Claire Chennault--to fight the Japanese invasion. President Roosevelt refused to compromise with the Japanese, and cut off their oil supplies in 1941 so they could no longer make war. They responded with a desperate attack on the United States and the British Empire that ended in total disaster for Japan. At the war's end the U.S. took over Japan with the goal of systematically creating a democratic nation, and succeeded under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur.
Human rights in the Soviet Union
President Jimmy Carter made human rights central to his foreign policy. This had the effect of ratcheting up pressure on the Soviet Union, especially after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. However it also led to a disaster in Iran, where Carter allowed pro-American Shah to collapse because he had a poor record on human rights. Americans were horrified to discover see the Shah's militant replacements were far more brutal regarding human rights, and were violently anti-American as well. The net result of Carter's policies was a loss of human rights by millions of friends of the U.S.
Clinton and Bush
Post World War II
In the 20th century, secular concepts of human rights proliferated: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the American Convention on Human Rights; the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights; the European Convention of Human Rights; various UN conferences' declarations on the environment, economic development, AIDS, and other topics; and the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols.
In 1948, the United Nations issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, a list of human rights they deem inherent and inviolable. This document contains thirty articles listing about fifty rights. It was developed by the Canadian and French delegations, with input from the American delegate Eleanor Roosevelt. At the time the UN Declaration was ratified by its members, it was hailed by Americans as a major advancement in the cause of liberty.
The Universal Declaration provides:
- Article 29 (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. (3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
The first International Conference on Human Rights was held in Tehran, Iran, in 1968. A powerful bloc of Asian, African, and Arab states successfully asserted their control over the UN Human Rights Program. Their aggressive conference diplomacy was the culmination of a major transition in UN politics, with supposedly Western notions of individual freedom rejected in favor of an agenda that privileged economic modernization and the collective rights of peoples in Third World nations over those of individuals in those nations. Twenty years after the iconic image of Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the residual elements of the program she presided over were repudiated in a storm of insistent demands from the new anti-colonial order.
The UDHR implicitly asserted that human rights are superior to notions of state sovereignty and called for the imposing of moral standards across the globe. These notions of universal human rights derive in part from Wilsonianism--the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson after World War I. They were reiterated in 2002 by President George W. Bush in his refusal to recognize Iraqi sovereignty and his efforts to impose a new democratic system of governance upon Iraq, and are a component of the Neoconservative effort to spread democracy in the Middle East, even in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The UN has supported this program, but the high cost has troubled Americans.
Deeply influenced by the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Indian constitution provides for a host of rights, including the right of equality, cultural and religious freedoms, and the right to education. Discrimination based on race, caste, gender, birthplace, and religion was subsequently outlawed. Yet, political and social realities have intruded. Because of India's multiplicity of religious and ethnic groups, each with their own traditions and beliefs, and the complex interplay between these groups, the principles contained in the constitution have not always been followed in practice.
The European Convention of Human Rights, implemented in 1953, led later to the 1975 Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Accords). This document guaranteed the postwar borders of European states, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and respect for human rights. It regulated the principles of economic, scientific, and technological cooperation and provided for the exchange of printed, film, and televised information.
The Helsinki Accords were used by human rights activists and the Reagan Administration to pressure the Soviet Union to relax some of its totalitarianism, and to allow the escape of Soviet Jews. Mikhail Gorbachev finally unleashed "glasnost" and "perestroika" that energized human rights activists and led to the collapse of Communism in Europe, 1989-91.
Because the promotion of human rights is an important national interest, the United States seeks to:
- Hold governments accountable to their obligations under universal human rights norms and international human rights instruments;
- Promote greater respect for human rights, including freedom from torture, freedom of expression, press freedom, women's rights, children's rights, and the protection of minorities;
- Promote the rule of law, seek accountability, and change cultures of impunity;
- Assist efforts to reform and strengthen the institutional capacity of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Commission on Human Rights; and
- Coordinate human rights activities with important allies, including the EU, and regional organizations.
Since 1999 the U.S. State Department has issued Country Reports on the status of human rights around the globe.
China is controlled by the Communist Party and its human rights record in 2008 remained poor and worsened in some areas. The government increased its severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in Tibetan areas and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), increased detention and harassment of dissidents and petitioners, and maintained tight controls on freedom of speech and the Internet. Abuses peaked around high-profile events, such as the Olympics and the unrest in Tibet. As in previous years, citizens did not have the right to change their government. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), both local and international, continued to face intense scrutiny and restrictions. Other serious human rights abuses included extrajudicial killings, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners, and the use of forced labor, including prison labor. Workers cannot choose an independent union to represent them in the workplace, and the law does not protect workers' right to strike.
Russia is no longer Communist, but it is increasingly an authoritarian state where democracy is weak. It has an increasingly centralized political system, with power concentrated in the hands of Vladimir Putin and his choices for top offices. International observers concluded that the December 2007 State Duma election (for parliament) was not fair, and neither was the March 2, 2008, election for president.
Human rights problems and abuses continued in 2008, though at a far lower level than the days of Communism (which ended in 1991). Putin's human rights record remained poor in the North Caucasus, where governments in Ingushetiya and Dagestan faced increased opposition from disaffected social groups and insurgencies, and the Chechen government forcibly reined in the Islamist insurgency that replaced the separatist insurgency as the main source of conflict. Russian security forces engaged in killings, torture, abuse, violence, and other brutal or humiliating treatment. In Chechnya, Ingushetiya, and Dagestan, security forces were involved in unlawful killings and politically motivated kidnappings. Chechen President Kadyrov continued his repressive control as federal forces withdrew. Federal and local security forces in Chechnya targeted families of suspected insurgents with impunity, and Kadyrov's private militia allegedly engaged in kidnapping and torture.
Pressure from Putin's regime weakened freedom of expression and media independence, particularly of the major television networks. Five journalists were assassinated in 2008. As some print and Internet media reflected a widening range of views, the government restricted media freedom through direct ownership of media outlets, pressuring the owners of major media outlets to abstain from critical coverage, and harassing and intimidating journalists into practicing self-censorship. Local governments limited freedom of assembly, and police sometimes used violence to prevent groups from engaging in peaceful protest. The government limited freedom of association. The government restricted religious groups in some regions, and there were incidents of societal discrimination, harassment, and violence against religious minorities, including anti-Semitism..
- American Empire
- Declaration of the Rights of Women, French Revolution (1791)
- Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, French Revolution (1789)
- Declaration of Rights and Sentiments American women, (1848)
- Declaration of Independence U.S. (1776)
- Burke, Roland. "From Individual Rights to National Development: the First UN International Conference on Human Rights, Tehran, 1968," Journal of World History 2008 19(3): 275-296, in EBSCO
- Devine, Carol et al. Human Rights: The Essential Reference (1999) online edition
- Langley, Winston E. Encyclopedia of Human Rights Issues since 1945 (1999) online edition
- Smith, Tony. America's Mission the United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy of the Twentieth Century (1994) excerpt and text search
- U.S. State Department. Country Reports, annual since 1999
- UN. Human Rights: A Compilation of International Instruments - Vol. 1 pt. 1 (2002) by Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Geneva; online edition