War by states, city-states, and individuals are common features found in human history going back to 2700 BCE. War has been used to resolve political or territorial disputes or ideological differences. At the same time the horrible consequences of war, have been drivers to create, expand, and strengthen human rights and their protection.  While war recedes humanity and the social fabric and moves them backward, human rights offer hope and move humanity and societies forward.   This one-step forward, two-steps-back cycle has been repeated throughout history.  Russia’s unprovoked invasion and war against Ukraine is the latest chapter.  It is marking an end of a cycle of relative peace and progress, and the start of another cycle that will shift the pendulum yet once again in favor of progress and against backwardness. The disturbing nature of aggression and the inability of old and weak institutions to adequately respond to unprovoked bellicosity will lead to a needed discussion about reclaiming fundamental values and the role of democratic governance and human rights in the new human history chapter.  The Russian war against Ukraine will likely last longer than needed and cause irreparable damage.  But history reminds us that the prerogative of a single individual with captured power and his evil willingness to use any means to get his way, including genocide and non-conventional weaponry, will not endure.  What does history teach us? Where should the new thinking take us to promote democratic governance and human rights in a more complex and unpredictable world? And who will lead the necessary changes in the new cycle?

Brief History of Human Rights

The history of human rights is the history of human struggles. The history of humanity is accompanied by progress, expansion, and backslide in human rights. From the more religious writings of over 3,000 years ago to formal documents and institutions over the last three centuries, human rights have been shaped and built gradually but steadily. While struggles have expanded practice, knowledge, and tools for human rights, their realization and enjoyment are not automatic outcomes.  Often war, armed conflict, and violence have been used to curtail gained rights. If one departs from the premise that as a human being one is entitled to human rights, all individuals have inalienable and universal rights.  Framed this way, all human beings are entitled to human rights.  As such, human rights could be seen as a precondition for an existence worthy of human dignity.

However, it took centuries to generate basic agreements and precedents, respect, and protection for human rights, as well as their formalization, legalization, and institutionalization.  For perspective, the idea, practice, and protection of human rights have been evolving throughout human history.   During the 6th Century, the Achaemenid Persian Empire of ancient Iran established unprecedented principles of human rights. Cyrus the Great (576 or 590 BC – 530 BC) issued the Cyrus cylinder (530 BCE) which declared that citizens of the empire would be allowed to practice their religious beliefs freely and also abolished slavery. The Magna Carta of 1215, the Golden Bull of Hungary (1222), the Danish Erik Klipping’s Håndfaestning of 1282, the Joyeuse Entrée of 1356 in Brabant (Brussels), the Union of Utrecht of 1579 (The Netherlands) and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and others have been forward steps to enhance specific rights, although most other rights still needed to be conferred to individuals or groups on the basis of their socio-economic status.  Spanish theologists and jurists played a prominent role to move the debate and action to the next level.  For example, the work of Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de las Casas, laid the foundation to recognize the freedom and dignity of all humans by defending the rights of the indigenous peoples in Spanish colonized territories.

The 17th century was a time of great political and social turmoil in many parts of the world, marked by wars, civil unrest, and colonialism. Monarchies and empires tightened their control of power, and they fought each other generating decades of terror, bloodshed, autocratic rule, and absolutism.  The Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648, ended the Thirty and Eighty Years Wars and created the framework for modem international relations. The concepts of state sovereignty, mediation between nations, and diplomacy all find their origins in the treaty. As ideals for inclusion and self-determination continued to evolve in the 17th and 18th centuries, aspirations for human rights also expanded.  The Enlightenment was decisive for human rights, as it focused on the idea that reason was the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and advocated such ideals as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.  Conceptual contributions by Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, and John Locke influenced thinking and practice around concepts such as natural rights, and other rights such as liberty and property. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Social Contract focused on how governments could exist in such a way that they protected the rights and well-being of their citizens.

This new thinking inspired progress in the direction of self-determination, which in the 18th and 19th centuries translated into calls for independence and to be free from colonial powers or from absolute monarchies. The U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 was based on the assumption that all human beings are equal. It also referred to certain inalienable rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas were also reflected in the 1776 Bill of Rights.  The term human rights appeared for the first time in the French Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (1789), as well as the French Constitution of 1793, and reflected the emerging international theory of universal rights. In the early 19th century, the Spanish colonies, in part encouraged and inspired by what was happening in France, and the U.S. fought for self-determination and independence.  All the constitutions that framed the independence movements in Latin America, contained elements of human rights. Later, in the 20th century Latin American and European constitutions assigned responsibilities to the government in the fields of employment, welfare, public health, and education. Social rights of this kind were also expressly included in the Mexican Constitution of 1917, the Constitution of the Soviet Union of 1918, and the German Constitution of 1919. However, all the documents, statements, and movements in favor of more human rights, despite their progress, were not enough.  In practice, the struggle to guarantee and make rights a reality continued.

The International and Global Dimensions of Human Rights

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there was a shift in the dynamics of human rights, as it began to articulate not only issues within the sovereign states but also between states. For example, bilateral treaties on the abolition of the slave trade took place in all regions; at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, discussions on the issue of the international slave trade took place; the International Committee of the Red Cross was founded in 1863; in 1902 the International Alliance for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship was founded; and in 1900 the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union is founded. The predecessor of the United Nations was the League of Nations, established in 1919 (in operations until 1946), after World War I, under the Treaty of Versailles “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.” In 1899, the International Peace Conference was held in the Hague to elaborate instruments for settling crises peacefully, preventing wars, and codifying rules of warfare. It adopted the Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes and established the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which began work in 1902 and continues its operations to today.

At the start of the 20th century, 10% of the world’s population lived in an independent nation. By the end, the great majority lived in one.  More independence meant new demands for human rights but also highlighted the need for more international standards on human rights.  As newly independent and older countries began to introduce labor, social and economic rights, they joined together in regional and global human rights mechanisms to promote, protect and advance human rights.   But progress and expansion of human rights are not ends in and of themselves, or their sustainability automatic.  Human rights history is also filled with opposition from individuals, groups, political parties, and rulers. Detractors have not been hesitant to use power and war to reverse progress. The First World War and the Second World War, both were reminders that progress in human rights is fragile, as human beings need to be constantly vigilant and active in defending and protecting human rights at the local, national and international levels.  The atrocities of war encouraged important changes, such as the signing of the Charter of the United Nations in June 1945, which contains specific references to human rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted on December 10, 1948.  

In spite of important progress in the 20th century, the remaining decades continued a vicious cycle of conflict and war.  The Korean, Vietnam, Gulf wars, violence and conflict in Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chechnya, East Timor, Kashmir, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and others were reminders of the constant struggle for human rights. More concerns with human rights and the struggle to protect people and their rights grew out of these.  Nonetheless, hope sustained the focus on human rights in the 20 century. The civil rights movement in the U.S. highlighted that while the end of the civil war in the mid-19th century had officially abolished slavery, it did not end discrimination against Black people, as they continued to endure the devastating effects of racism. The long struggle for women’s rights also achieved important benchmarks, such as voting rights and reproductive rights.  And yet, the struggle continues.  Moreover, ending impunity and holding violators of human rights also provided some hope.  From Nuremberg to Darfur, history has seen some war criminals brought to trial. The International Criminal Court was established to prosecute serious international crimes, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. And yet, many violators are still in power and have not been held accountable for their crimes.

Human Rights and Democratic Governance

The last three decades of the 20th century saw the so-called third wave of democracy as many countries around the world made the transition from authoritarian regimes.  Explicit or implicit, human rights became part of this historic transition and created great aspirations.  In practice, however, the third wave showed that achieving and guaranteeing this aspirational universality of human rights is much more complex.  As the third democratic wave technically ended in the first decade of the 21st century, today we are left with many lessons and unanswered questions. We are witnessing a slow but systemic backsliding of some of the achievements of the third wave.  This is happening less by a coup d’état, and more through elected rulers, who have learned to use some of the elements of democratic governance to capture and stay in power, and undertake actions to weaken the democratic rule, including removal of horizontal checks, diminution of citizens’ rights, and in extreme cases using prison and captured justice to suppress the opposition and delegitimize the electoral system itself.

One can argue that democratic governance is the only compatible means with human rights, vis-à-vis, authoritarian, autocratic, totalitarian, and tyrannical rule. If we understand democratic governance as a system with free and fair elections for participation, independent media for freedom of expression, separation of powers for accountability, and an active civil society for civil liberties, these all encompass human rights, and they are mutually reinforcing. But democratic governance is not homogeneous across the world. As Freedom House poignantly highlighted in its 2022 Freedom in the World Report, there is no dogmatic definition of democracy.  Authoritarian regimes and dictatorships have misappropriated its meaning and have used sham elections to claim democratic legitimacy.  Democratic governance involves more than elections, as it also needs institutions, processes, and safeguards to ensure citizens have a say in decisions, and access to rule of law and accountability.  From a human rights lens, democratic governance is the means to universalize human rights, assure human rights must be the same everywhere and for everyone, ensure the dignity and worth of the human person, and guarantee human well-being.  While not perfect, democratic governance can allow for continuous improvements to close gaps, leading toward these aspirations.    

Over the first two decades of the 21st century, and despite progress, democratic governance and human rights remain fragile, and the struggle continues. The third democratization wave for all intent and purposes has ended, and as evidenced by Freedom House, IDEA International, V-Dem, and the Economist Intelligence Unit among others, there are more countries today backsliding in their democratic governance.  Moreover, human rights are again under attack by regimes, political parties, and religious groups.  Figure 1 illustrates the political rights and civil liberties tendencies in a selected number of countries in the Western Hemisphere during the last decade, and Figure 2 shows the largest declines over the past ten years.    

In as much as humanity has made progress over the past 3,000 years in human rights and democratic governance, we find ourselves again at an inflection point. The last cycle was relatively good for human rights and democratic governance, as rights, suffrage, knowledge, and information were expanded.  Apartheid ended; there were breakthroughs for women, immigrants, and minorities; and growing tolerance toward marriage equality and LGBTQIA communities.  But simultaneously we have Putin’s unprovoked war and invasion of Ukraine looming without an end in sight; ongoing conflicts in Syria, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Myanmar; the Israel-Palestine war; the Taliban moving back the clock in Afghanistan; the Republican Party in the U.S. reducing voting rights and women rights and casting doubt on the integrity of the elections; and a bunch of autocrats, dictators, and tyrants with power assaulting political rights and civil liberties across the world and enriching themselves through corrupt and kleptocratic practices. 

The human rights and democratic governance agenda is set for the next cycle.  As before, change will come from four sources:

  1. An effective international and regional action, especially to support disadvantaged people and organizations in countries where their national institutions have been captured by narrow and autocratic interests.  The current international architecture inherited from the last world war is not working and needs urgent reform and new more agile, less political, and more effective institutions need to emerge with high standards for membership.  It is inconceivable that in the main United Nations body on Human Rights countries with dubious human rights records have a seat and can give opinions on egregious violations by their own governments and others.
  2. Democratic governments’ ability to continue to expand inclusion and participation, while strengthening accountability, leading by example and standing against abuses of power, and demonstrating that no one is above the law.  The governments must also address economic inequalities and provide solutions to address the economic and social rights of historically neglected and marginalized groups. As in other cycles, a modernization agenda is also needed to innovate institutions and democratic practices. 
  3. Governments will not automatically design or implement human rights or democratic governance agendas. These need to be triggered by systemic and sustained demands.  So, civil society and communities are key essential sources of change.  Human rights and democratic governance will strengthen and expand when civil society groups stand against polarization and divisive discourse coming from politicians, political parties, and the media, and when entrenched economic and political interests that promote and sustain inequality are called out.  New social movements are needed to be in the vanguard and committed to democratic principles, promoting informed discussions, building civic education and training, raising public awareness of human rights violations, and pressing for changes in law and policy, as well as international action. Using technological tools present great opportunities for networking and for building alliances, as well as for fighting back against disinformation.
  4. Last but not least, the most important source is us, as individuals. We now have so many tools at our disposal that were not there even three decades ago, through which we can unleash change. We can each start by becoming more resilient, more informed, more tolerant, and more actively engaged in what the government and politicians say and do. We should vote and support the expansion of voting rights, but also pressure to reform outdated voting schemes like gerrymandering. We should be less focused on things that are no longer essential. In that sense, the covid-19 pandemic has thought us what is important and has nourished our resilience. We need to be aware that we live in a new, more uncertain, complex, and insecure world, where entrenched beliefs are no longer valid. There is no longer a left and right spectrum, or single issues that define who we are. We need to connect to the rest of the world instead of alienating or isolating ourselves, which today is possible thanks to technology.

We are at the start of a new cycle with hope, and opportunity, but also other challenges. How we contribute today will shape the next generations. Our power as individuals has never been stronger, and we need to contribute to the other sources of change mentioned above. Our contribution will be minimal if we do not engage as a collective, and demand from governments, and the international arena. If there is one thing the last 3,000 years of struggle have shown us is that there are humans who devalue human rights, and there will always be. But there is also a bunch of great human beings, many of whom have sacrificed their lives to let future generations enjoy rights, democracy, and dignity. This should give us all hope for today. Most importantly we need to believe that in 200 years from now when other humans are looking back at this moment in human history, they will also appreciate our efforts, as we also did appreciate the efforts of those who did the same 200 years ago. Change is gradual and incremental, but it comes.

*Source of the photo: Pexels, 2022

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