International Human Rights: Evolution down the Ages....by KBS Sidhu
Chandigarh: International Human Rights Day:
Today (December 10) marks the observance of International Human Rights Day, a day commemorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 in Paris. The adoption, through General Assembly Resolution 217 A, was a seminal moment in history, establishing a universal set of principles that champion the inherent dignity and equal rights of all human beings.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Preamble of the UDHR sets the tone for the declaration, recognizing the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. The declaration consists of 30 Articles, articulating a range of fundamental human rights and freedoms. The first two articles emphasize the equality and dignity of all human beings and the entitlement to rights and freedoms without discrimination. The Charter is easily available on the web, should a reader want to peruse the full text.
India’s Contribution and Hansa Mehta’s Role
As a founding member of the United Nations, India was part of this historic resolution and has since been a strong adherent to its principles. A notable contribution came from Hansa Mehta, an esteemed Indian reformer and educator. As one of only two women on the Commission on Human Rights, Mehta was instrumental in shaping the UDHR, advocating for gender-neutral language, a move that shifted the narrative to encompass all human beings.
Raj Dharma and Judicial Fairness in Ancient India
In ancient India, despite the king's word being law, the judicial system under the concept of Raj Dharma was structured to avoid arbitrary punishments. Kings, while sovereign, were bound by the principles of Raj Dharma, which dictated that their authority must be exercised with moral responsibility and ethical governance. This ancient concept advocated for a ruler's duty to uphold justice and fairness, ensuring that punishments such as fines, imprisonment, confiscation of property, or even capital punishment were not meted out on a whim but followed a set of established principles and laws.
Under this system, the king's decisions, especially in judicial matters, were required to align with Dharma - the moral and ethical code that governed all aspects of life. This meant that any form of punishment had to be justifiable, proportionate to the offense, and in the best interest of societal harmony and justice.
The concept of Raj Dharma, therefore, served as a check on the king's powers, instilling a sense of accountability and fairness in governance. It was an early form of the rule of law, emphasizing that even the king was subject to the principles of righteousness and justice, mirroring contemporary understandings of human rights and the fair exercise of judicial power.
The Magnificent Legacy of Magna Carta
The Magna Carta, sealed (not signed) in 1215, stands as a monumental event in the evolution of human rights globally. Drafted and enacted in England, it was King John who put his seal on this historic document at Runnymede, near Windsor, under the compulsion of a group of rebellious barons. The Magna Carta, or "Great Charter," was essentially a peace treaty between the king and the barons, who were frustrated with the king's tyrannical rule and heavy taxation.
This charter laid down the principle that everyone, including the King, was subject to the law, marking the beginning of constitutional governance. One of its most celebrated clauses stated that no free man shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, or exiled except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
This notion of due process and the protection of individual rights from arbitrary state action has had a profound influence on subsequent human rights documents and legal systems worldwide, serving as a foundational stone for democratic principles and the rule of law.
The Symbolic Essence of the French Revolution: Storming of the Bastille
The French Revolution, a monumental event beginning in 1789, forever changed the course of human rights and political philosophy. Its most symbolic and catalytic event, the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789, marked the beginning of this transformative era.
The Bastille, a fortress and prison in Paris, represented the tyrannical power of the Bourbon monarchy. Its capture by the revolutionaries symbolized the overthrow of despotism and the birth of liberty.
The Revolution brought to the forefront the powerful ideals of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, fraternity). These principles reshaped not only French society, abolishing feudalism and establishing a republic, but also inspired human rights movements globally. The legacy of the French Revolution, particularly the enduring significance of these cardinal principles, continues to influence the discourse on human rights, underscoring the universal aspiration for freedom, equality, and collective brotherhood.
Human Rights in the Indian Constitution: A Closer Look at Articles 20 and 21
India's Constitution, adopted in 1950, is a living document that robustly embeds the principles of human rights within its framework. The Preamble itself sets the tone by ensuring justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity to all its citizens, thereby underscoring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. Beyond the Preamble, specific articles like 20 and 21 form the bedrock of fundamental human rights, offering protections not just to Indian citizens but to all persons within the territory of India.
Article 20(3) states: "No person accused of any offence shall be compelled to be a witness against himself."
This provision safeguards individuals against self-incrimination, ensuring the right to a fair trial and due process of law. Article 21 reads: "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law." This article guarantees the fundamental right to life and personal liberty, a broad and dynamic provision that has been expansively interpreted by the Supreme Court of India to include the right to live with human dignity and encompasses a variety of rights that make life meaningful, dignified, and worth living.
These articles collectively represent the essence of human rights in Indian jurisprudence, reflecting a commitment to protect individuals from arbitrary state action and to ensure the fundamental rights essential for human existence and development. The Indian Constitution, through these provisions, establishes a legal framework that recognizes and upholds the intrinsic worth and dignity of every individual, forming a cornerstone in the pursuit of a just and equitable society.
Addressing Subtle Forms of Human Rights Abuses Beyond the State
Human rights violations are not limited to actions by state actors; they can also occur within the fabric of society, often perpetuated by corporations, dominant societal groups, or cultural norms.
These subtle yet pervasive forms of discrimination, including racial, caste-based, and practices like untouchability, pose a significant challenge to the ethos of human rights. It's essential that such violations are not only identified and stopped but also addressed through proactive measures including public awareness, naming and shaming of offenders, and prompt legal action.
The role of education in transforming societal attitudes cannot be overstated. Educating the masses about the importance of human rights, inclusivity, and the dignity of every individual, regardless of their race, caste, or social standing, is fundamental. This approach, combined with strong legal frameworks that ensure swift and just punishment for violators, can help in uprooting these deep-seated prejudices. Ultimately, the goal is to foster a society where respect for human rights is ingrained in the collective consciousness, leading to a more equitable and just world.
Zero Tolerance for Human Rights Abuses
It's imperative to maintain a zero-tolerance approach to human rights abuses, addressing complaints expeditiously. This includes tackling issues like sexual harassment in the workplace and verbal or mental abuse, ensuring protection for all, including domestic workers.
Rejecting “Cultural Relativism” in Upholding Human Rights
Cultural relativism, the idea that right and wrong are culturally specific and that no one set of ethics or moral values is superior to another, poses a significant challenge in the universal application of human rights. This concept suggests that human rights and ethical standards are contextually based on cultural understanding and should be interpreted within that specific cultural framework. While cultural relativism acknowledges the diversity of cultural norms and practices, its application can become problematic when it is used to justify blatant human rights abuses under the guise of cultural practices or traditions.
In contrast, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserts that human rights are inalienable and universal, transcending cultural and national boundaries.
Adhering strictly to the principles of the UDHR means rejecting the notion that cultural relativism can be a valid excuse for human rights violations. Human rights abuses, regardless of cultural context, cannot be justified or tolerated.
Upholding the UDHR as the guiding light ensures that the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals are protected globally, establishing a common ground for justice and equality. This approach is critical in building a world where every individual’s rights are respected and protected, regardless of their cultural or national background.
The Establishment of National and State Human Rights Commissions in India
In response to the need for dedicated, statutory bodies to monitor and enforce human rights, India, in 1993, established the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and various State Human Rights Commissions.
These were necessitated by the growing recognition of human rights violations and the need for an authoritative body to address them. Often led by retired Supreme Court or High Court judges, these commissions have gradually evolved from advisory bodies to more influential entities. Their recommendations, especially regarding compensation, prosecution, or disciplinary action, have gained significant legal weight, moving towards being virtually mandatory in some cases.
Balancing Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism
While upholding human rights is paramount, it is equally important to ensure that these rights are not exploited by terrorists who jeopardize the safety of innocent citizens, apart from attacking vital installations in the country. Individuals involved in terrorism, using weapons and bombs to inflict harm, must be prosecuted with the full force of the law. The use of preventive detention, as allowed under legal frameworks, may be necessary in some of these cases to maintain public safety and order.
Managing Human Rights in Disturbed Areas
In areas under the Disturbed Areas Act, where the Army and paramilitary are deployed for internal security, a careful balance must be struck. While personnel should be protected against frivolous complaints, there must be a zero-tolerance policy for blatant violations of human rights, especially those driven by personal gain or extraneous reasons. Prompt and strict disciplinary action is essential to uphold the integrity and accountability of security forces.
Conclusion: Rededicating to Human Rights on International Human Rights Day
As we mark International Human Rights Day, it's imperative to reflect on how our understanding and implementation of human rights have evolved with our societies. In a world that is continuously changing, our approach to human rights must also adapt, ensuring that we grow increasingly humane and empathetic towards all, especially those facing hardships.
The path to a genuinely civilized world is forged through unwavering respect for and protection of human rights. This journey demands constant vigilance and a balanced, ongoing reassessment of how we uphold these essential values.
On this significant day, let us collectively recommit to the principles of human rights at every level of society. From individuals to families, communities, nations, and the global stage, every entity plays a crucial role in upholding and advancing these rights.
Let our dedication to human rights shine as a beacon of hope and action, guiding us towards a future where dignity, freedom, and justice are not just ideals, but realities for all. This commitment to human rights, reaffirmed on International Human Rights Day, is a testament to our collective resolve to build a more just, equitable, and humane world.
December 10, 2023
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