Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - A Short History of Human Rights


The idea of human rights is of moral rather than legal nature. Although a growing number of human rights have legal protection, human rights primarily reflect people's aspirations. They proclaim widely accepted standards for freedom, for limitations on state power, and for services that can be expected from a society as represented by the state in accordance to an underlying set of moral values. Although some of these standards may be enforced by law, new ones appear and are claimed as moral postulates. Human rights are, therefore, universal moral rights of fundamental character. They belong to every person in his or her relations with the state and with any other authority in a position to use coercive power against the individual. Although some moral rights can be acquired (inherited, earned, bought, received, or exchanged for something else), human rights are inherent and belong to the human being as such. It is believed that every person comes to existence endowed with these rights.

Let us accept this working description of the nature of human rights for now and leave the more detailed discussion for the rest of this book. The concept of human rights, as described here, consists of at least six fundamental ideas:

  1. The power of a ruler (a monarch or the state) is not unlimited.

  2. Subjects have a sphere of autonomy that no power can invade and certain rights and freedoms that must to be respected by a ruler.

  3. There exist procedural mechanisms to limit the arbitrariness of a ruler and protect the rights and freedoms of the ruled (points 1 and 2, above, have already transformed “subjects” into the “ruled”) who can make valid claims on the state for such protection.

  4. […]