Where human rights have come from — and where they are likely to go

In Brief: 
  • A new book examines the history of human rights to the present day and concludes that our shared definition of human nature is the key to providing a sure foundation for human rights.
  • In that regard, the concept of the oneness of humanity can offer an important universal viewpoint for re-examining rights, writes Aaron Emmel.
  • Mr. Emmel suggests also that we are likely to see human rights become more universal, more encompassing, and more widely observed and enforced in the future.

Human Rights in an Advancing Civilization
By Aaron Emmel
​George Ronald, Oxford

Are human rights merely a list of good ideas, to be discussed and agreed upon? Or are they intrinsic to human existence, founded on something more fundamental? And, either way, are rights universal, applicable to all cultures and times?

These are among the questions addressed in a new book by Aaron Emmel, titled Human Rights in an Advancing Civilization.

Mr. Emmel, a policy specialist who has worked at several non-governmental organizations in Washington DC, addresses these and other issues in a broad look at the conception and development of human rights in history and to the present day. He also looks proactively towards the future.

His main theme is that to fully comprehend or define human rights, we must first arrive at an understanding of what it means to be a human being. Once the conception of our selves is settled, then the real basis of human rights flows logically.

“Human rights are based on the concept that people are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of being human,” he writes, noting, however, that such a conception therefore revolves around what people think “constitutes a human being” and who is therefore “qualified to claim human rights.”

In exploring this theme, Mr. Emmel takes readers on a tour of the history of human rights, going back to the concept of sanctuary in Jewish and, later, Roman law. He discusses the rights of citizens in Greek city-states, and the contributions made by Christianity and Islam. He then moves through the Enlightenment philosophers and to the modern day, covering the history of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Along the way, he breaks the discussion into discrete topics, such as minority rights, rights and development, and the rule of law. He discusses, for example, the issue of individual and community identity — and how those concepts impact the evolving conception of human rights.

Too often in the past, he notes, a society’s limited view of human identity has led to a limited view of rights for some — as, say, when minorities or women are seen as having fewer rights.

But “communities and societies change,” he writes, “and ideas about identity and rights — how members of the community define themselves, and the rights and expectations they have of themselves and others — change with them.”