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Sacred Texts:The Bible
Customs: Traditional African Societies

Founders of Major Religions and Doctrines

Philosophers and Writers
The Greeks

18th Century

Previous legal texts relating to Human Rights
Magna Carta

Habeus Corpus
Bill of Rights
Declaration of Independence
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

In writing the UDHR in 1948, the Commission for Human Rights of the UN did not exactly invent the concept of respect for people. For centuries, the major religions and great philosophies have, each in their own ways, in each context, attempted to better organise society so as to make justice reign there. Even if , in certain cases, their laws seem tough to us, even cruel; today they tend however to substitute norms of personal vengeance with no limits, and find a way for humans to live in better conditions together.

We site here certain examples, presented very sketchily. We do not pretend to expose here complex doctrines, but to underline the concern for the well-being or the rights of humans that is found in each of them, to differing degrees, and in just as different forms (laws, philosophical theories, ethics).


Example : The BIBLE (Middle East)

This collection of stories and laws from different periods tells of the origin of the people of Israel. Since the end of the Second Millennium BEFORE CHRIST, the Tribes formed a confederation which was founded on a common law, Moses’ Law (the Thora), which organised people’s lives, and sanctioned severely the one who transgressed it. Numerous measures protected the foreigner, the weak, punished murder, theft, false witness. Later David declared 11 virtues which attempted to protect each human among which was justice, the horror of slander, horror of meanness, respect for the just…

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Example : Traditional AFRICAN Societies

A certain form of democracy existed there. Surely the respect due to the Ancestor may seem constraining: the young and women were not allowed to question its authority. But the priority is accorded to the COMMUNITY. The King, the Chief, are the servants of the order necessary in this community. An ambitious person would not know how to serve the group, The decisions were not just whims of the Chief. They resulted from a consensus of the whole. The Chief sticks to presiding over it, and giving the say to the elders. He was not even supposed to indicate his preferences.

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BUDDHA (India, 6th Century BC)

Buddha wanted, above all else, the well-being of Humankind. He preached Love and Respect for others. "That all beings be happy. That they be in joy and confidence… Let no one deceive another or harm another being no matter how small; let no one, through anger or hate, wish ill of another …"

"The one who in this world makes living creatures suffer … let that one be considered an outcast."

He laid down a certain number of recommendations to enable humans to reach Universal Love, not by force, but by following the most exacting path, to learn to perfect oneself.

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CONFUCIUS (China, 6th Century BC)

For him, the "realised" or "enlightened" being practices "Jen" (perfect human virtue: to love. That which we do not want, we should not do to others) and "Ji" (duty of justice in inter-human relationships).

For him, it is in Society, in the heart of civilisation, that the humanity of human beings is accomplished but Society must not crush humans. Here is the attitude, according to him, that the Prince must have towards his people: "That that which we ask of them be simple and clear. And that we begin by doing it in front of them. That we begin by paining, never letting oneself be stopped by fatigue, before fulfilling the call to duty. Then they must be enriched. And then? Educated. And at all costs gain their confidence. The Prince must not worry about not having a big population, but that the riches be equally shared. He must not worry about being poor, but of not being in accordance with them. "He preached a "safe middle ground": no excess, no partiality.

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Christ is located in what his followers see as the prolongation of the Thora (Old Testament). [*Jewish people may not agree with this.]  But he deepened the meaning by raising up the attitude of Love for Humankind rather than obeying laws. He brought out the importance of the person over institutions. ("The Sabbath was made for men, and not man for the Sabbath." Signifying that the rite was secondary).

Saint Paul who cited the words of Christ in his writings, declares that there is no difference that can be the foundation of an inequality (man/woman, Greek/Barbarian, slave/freeman, Jew/Gentile).

Inspiring themselves from Christ’s predictions of Love, in the ensuing centuries, Christians came to the aid of the needy: creating schools, hospitals.

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The idea of Human Dignity is very strong in Islam. It is founded on the idea that humans are the "Emissaries" of God: there is a mission and a responsibility on Earth.

The Koran also affirms the idea of Equality. "All are equal among humankind as are the teeth of a weaving comb." Equality and the duty to help the needy.

Human Liberty is also situated in a religious perspective. The Koran improved the condition of women compared with what it was at the time.

Like the Bible, it raises a certain number of laws for protecting the weak, punishing theft, murder, etc. [* Actually it is the Koran that considers Mohammed’s story to be a prolongation of the Thora and the Gospels.]

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THE GREEKS (6TH and 3RD Centuries BC)

It was in Athens that Democracy 6 centuries BEFORE CHRIST was established (slavery was not even contested at this time).

Several philosophies, among which the "Sophists" (5th C. BC) denounced slavery by leaning on the notion of natural rights and declaring the idea of a Universal Nature which got the upper hand over local particularities.

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) in the Treaty "Politics" studies the different types of human relations and forms of government (monarchy, democracy…) and attempts to indicate the government the most suited to the common good.

In the 3rd century BC the "Stoiciens" brought out the idea of the Human Community, while insisting on the value of the individual.

Plato (427 – 348 BC) in The Republic debates the questions of Justice.

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GROTIUS (1583 – 1645)

Dutch jurist, known for his "De jure belli ac pacis", code of the International People’s Rights relating to war, which got him the name "Father of the People’s Rights".

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They directly prepared the ideas that inspired the French Declaration of 1789:

Marivaux and Beaumarchais, when they denounce the requisition of money by the State and of class in human relations.

The Encyclopedists for whom Wisdom (Sciences, Arts, Philosophy, Medicine) was the most powerful liberation of humankind.

Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, who were the forerunners of a School of Thought which endeavoured to be UNIVERSAL. Voltaire, in particular, who stood up against Injustice (Calas Affair).

Beccaria ( 1738 –1794 ) Italian philosopher and economist who published in 1764 "Treaty of the Transgressions and Their Punishments". He declares that the experience of 20 centuries proves the Death Penalty is of no real use. He started an Abolitionist movement and many controversies. If Beccaria’s theses were pushed down, the reactions caused by them was profound and certain jurists would rethink the problem.

Altogether Exceptional Personalities jumped centuries to advance the place of the Individual in the face of the power of the Church.

For example, Bartholomé de Las Casas (XVI Century) who fought to defend the cause of the Native Americans persecuted and exterminated by the Spanish invaders following the conquest of the New World.

Gandhi (1863 – 1948) in India who liberated his country from English domination by using the "weapon" of non-violence (see document in appendix).

It must be said that the followers of this or that religion often completely distorted the initial message, and that all along the ages the periods of advance were often followed by periods of darkness. Examples: - Christianity gave rise to the Inquisition, the Crusades and religious wars. – Various contemporary beliefs: Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian sects, all are sources of fanaticism and violence.

All that has preceded has proved that it is inexact to think Human Rights is a Western notion.


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Little by little, major religious principles or philosophies changed into RIGHTS, so as to establish GUARANTEES for people.

In Europe, it was usually the impetus of Anglo-Saxon countries that led to the first attempts to assemble written texts, which developed and spelled them out as laws.

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"MAGNA CARTA" ( England, 1215 )

A Charter imposed by the Barons to King John No-Land who wanted to exact extremely high taxes to finance the war with France, and lock up anyone who was against it. This Charter guaranteed feudal rights, and freedom of Churches and cities against royal heavy handedness. Amongst the declared rights, the presumption of innocence: "No free man is to be arrested, imprisoned or denied of his goods or outlawed or enslaved or bound in any way. We will not go after him, except in the case of legal judgement by his peers, in accordance with the governing laws." First Official Declaration of Human Rights.

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"HABEAS CORPUS" (England, 1679)

Voted by the English Parliament officially institutionalising the guarantees of individual freedom (already formulated in the "Petition for Rights" which assured citizens against unlawful arrest and unfair trials.)

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BILL OF RIGHTS (England, 1689)

English Parliament presents a Charter of Rights which defend the individual and especially that of freedom of belief and opinion.

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This consecrates the idea of Democracy: inalienable rights of individuals, equality of men, respect for people’s opinions, of humanity, and proclaims the right of happiness. 

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This develops the great principles of Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood: Protest of the people against absolute monarchy, gives the right to citizens to intervene in affairs of State. The Constitution of 1793 adds economic and social rights as well as the "right to resist oppression".

Although, despite all the progress this represented as compared with social organisation under Royalty, this Declaration is based on the recognition of the rights and freedoms of a particular minority namely the land-owning Bourgeoisie.  It was only little by little following industrial development, and the rise of liberalism like Socialism and the birth of trade unions that the concept of "Man" was extended to include "little people", workers...and to women...to finally, very late, at the idea of "self-determining people.

In the course of all those years, little by little certain rights were recognised.  

In Europe, Beccaria’s Theses against the Death Penalty helped set off its abolition (always disputed ever since):

in Tuscany in 1786  (re-instated in 1803)

In Austria in 1787  (re-instated in 1796)

in France in 1795  (re-instated by the Consulate)

In France; rights were progressively recognised:

Abolition of Slavery (1848)

Universal Suffrage for all Men (1849)

Right to Strike (1864)

Limitation on Working Children (1874)

Freedom of the Press (1881)

Obligatory Primary School (1862)

Creation of Trade Unions (1884)

Right of Association (1901)

Right for Weekly Days Off (1906)

Right to Paid Holidays Time Off (1936)

Right to Vote for Women (1945)

- International Organisations started to see the light of day to protect Human Rights:

the Red Cross for wounded and prisoners of war (1863)

the League of Nations (1918) following World War I

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