Human Rights Day (December 10, 1998) marks the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted this document. It is not legally binding on the signatories, but it has moral force that commands worldwide respect. Thus, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a standard by which many people throughout the world judge the conditions of citizenship and government internationally and within their own countries. This document, which includes 30 articles pertaining to various human rights, is also a focal point of education about human rights in schools throughout the world.
CONCEPTIONS AND ORIGINS
“Human rights are the claims that all human beings are justly entitled to make merely by virtue of their being human” (Plattner 1995, 573). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when this idea became prominent in Western Europe and North America, it carried the label “natural rights” to denote derivation of these rights from the nature of every human being. Each person, according to the natural rights concept, possesses equally certain immutable rights by virtue of her or his membership in the human species; it is the duty of a just government to protect these rights.
The United States Declaration of Independence, adopted July 4, 1776, expresses the “natural rights” idea in these memorable words: “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. That to secure these Rights Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the right of the People to alter or Abolish it and to institute new Government . . . ”
This Declaration of Independence by and for the people of a new American nation still has global implications. The same can be said about the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen issued by France’s National Assembly in 1789, which proclaimed: “The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression.”
The 1787 Constitution and the 1791 Bill of Rights of the United States of America were designed and adopted to address the civic values of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. This Constitution reflects the understanding among America’s founders that the individual’s rights are at risk if a government is either too strong or too weak. A good government simultaneously is empowered and limited. It is empowered sufficiently by the people to secure their rights against domestic or foreign predators. And this government’s power is also limited sufficiently by the supreme law of its constitution to protect the people’s rights against abuses by their own governors.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the concept of natural rights was transformed into the idea of human rights. This change reflected an expansion of the scope or range of rights to include two types of claims.
The first and older type is negative; it would limit the power of a government to protect peoples’ rights against its power. The second and newer type of claim is positive; it would enhance the power of the government to do something for the person to enable her or him in some way. Thus, the late twentieth century idea of human rights, which incorporates both the positive and negative types, means that “certain things ought not to be done to any human being and certain other things ought to be done for every human being” (Perry 1998, 13).
The older negative claims on rights are exemplified by Articles 1-21 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These Articles imply that no government or society should act against individuals in certain ways that would deprive them of inherent political or personal rights, such as freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion. The newer positive claims on rights are exemplified by Articles 22-28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They imply that every government and society should act for individual members to enable them to enjoy certain social and economic rights or benefits pertaining to social security, employment, housing, education, health care, and general standard of living.
CONFLICT AND CONSENSUS ABOUT NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE RIGHTS
There is general or global agreement among advocates of human rights that both types of rights, the negative and positive, must be included in a worthy constitutional government. However, there is worldwide conflict or disagreement about which type of rights is primary and most important in a constitutional democracy.
Advocates for the primacy and predominance of positive rights claim that “bread is more important than freedom of speech.” They argue that the duties of government to provide social and economic welfare benefits for all the people require enhancement of public power and authority to enter all areas of economic and social life to promote the common good (Patrick 1991, 622).
By contrast, proponents of the negative rights tradition worry about the enormous increase of centralized government power required to provide positive rights through large-scale public programs. This could lead to a government so powerful and insufficiently limited that it could arbitrarily deprive particular persons (those out of favor with authorities) of their traditional personal and political rights. Thus, they maintain that human rights generally depend upon the primacy of guaranteed negative rights. They assert: a constitutional democracy that would only recognize negative rights is incomplete; one that would only or primarily recognize positive rights is impossible (Patrick 1991, 623).