The concept of human rights refers, by definition, to rights and privileges that belong to all individuals or groups of people simply as a consequence of their humanity. Human rights are founded on the axiom that all people -- regardless of the political, economic, or religious milieus in which they live -- are entitled to the benefit of at least a core set of minimal rights, freedoms, and protections. Moreover, these rights are held to be of a fundamentally essential nature, addressing basic and universal human needs and supporting human dignity. Intrinsic to personhood, human rights are not granted by government. They are possessed not only by the privileged but by every human being on earth.
The notion of a universal set of human rights had its earliest origins in ancient Greece and Rome and were rediscovered during the Renaissance. Only after the Middle Ages -- during a period when ever-growing numbers of people grew weary of religious intolerance, political and economic bondage, and the failure of rulers to meet their obligations -- would natural law -- the idea that nature itself, not the state, assures certain rights to all human beings regardless of their wealth, influence, heritage, or citizenship -- become widely associated with natural rights. The 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, the Magna Carta of 1215, the 16th-century scholar Hugo Grotius, the Petition of Right of 1628, and the English Bill of Rights of 1689 all reflected the increasingly popular view that human beings were endowed with certain eternal and inalienable rights.
The conceptual bridge from natural law to the modern understanding of natural rights was completed by the philosophical advances of the Enlightenment, the 17th- and 18th-century Western intellectual movement that celebrated the power of reason and encouraged a belief in natural law, universal order, and the perfectibility of human affairs. Particularly important were the writings of John Locke, who argued that certain rights self-evidently belong to every human being (because these rights existed in “the state of nature” before people developed societies and civilizations). Chief among these rights, said Locke, are the rights to life, liberty (meaning freedom from arbitrary rule), and property. Locke said that human beings, upon entering civil society, in no way surrender these rights but merely enter into a “social contract” whereby the state assumes the power to enforce, but not to usurp, such rights.
This revolutionary notion of mankind’s unalienable rights laid the philosophical foundation for the American and French Revolutions. In the Declaration of Independence of 1776, Thomas Jefferson, who had studied the writings of Locke, wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This was the ultimate expression of a belief in universal human rights. Similarly, the marquis de Lafayette in 1789 proclaimed, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights,” and that “the aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man.”
The abolition and suffrage movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries were similarly founded on the premise of universal human rights. But not until after World War II would the term “human rights” become part of the international political lexicon. This occurred largely in response to Nazi Germany’s genocidal atrocities, which had been officially authorized by Nazi laws and decrees. The need for a universal set of human rights principles that transcended the laws and customs of any particular society now seemed apparent.
Toward that end, the 1945 Charter of the United Nations reaffirmed a “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” It stated further that the UN would seek “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples … [and] to achieve international co-operation … in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
On December 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted, without dissent, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Designed to suggest “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” rather than enforceable legal obligations, this document is a compilation of many of the more significant elements of the world’s myriad political, legal, social, economic, and cultural systems. It includes such items as: equality before the law; protection against arbitrary arrest; the right to a fair trial; freedom from ex post facto criminal laws; the right to own property; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; the right to work; the right to form and join trade unions; the right to rest and leisure; the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being; and the right to education.
Today’s leading human-rights advocates generally espouse the leftist perspective which, in its analysis of human societies, draws a stark dichotomy between oppressors on the one hand, and victims on the other. A cardinal principle of leftist thought is that the "underdog" generally occupies the moral high-ground in any dispute, and thus automatically merits the sympathy and support of public opinion. Human-rights activists, therefore, typically pass harsh judgment on the actions of wealthy, powerful, industrialized nations -- most notably the United States. As such, they ascribe to the U.S. all manner of negative traits: racism, sexism, imperialism, aggression, etc. Extending this line of thought, they invariably cast America as the villain in its conflicts with enemies foreign and domestic.
Amnesty International (AI), for instance, complains that the anti-terrorism legislation known as the PATRIOT Act “undermines the human rights of Americans and non-citizens, and weakens the framework for promoting human rights internationally.” In 2004 Amnesty's secretary general Irene Khancondemned the “security agenda promulgated by the U.S. Administration,” calling it “bankrupt of vision and bereft of principle.” Khan further claimed that America had “openly eroded human rights to win the ‘war on terror.’”
AI has also denounced the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities where the U.S. has held hundreds of high-level terror suspects in custody since 9/11. In March 2005, the executive director of Amnesty's USA branch, William Schulz, alleged that the United States had become "a leading purveyor and practitioner" of torture and asserted that senior American officials -- including President Bush, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and former CIA director George Tenet -- should face prosecution by other governments for violations of the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. "The apparent high-level architects of torture," Schulz remarked, "should think twice before planning their next vacation to places like Acapulco or the French Riviera because they may find themselves under arrest as Augusto Pinochet famously did in London in 1998." Schulz’s comments were echoed in May of 2005 by Irene Khan, who charged that “Guantanamo has become the gulag of our times.”
Human-rights leaders and organizations do not reserve their criticisms solely for the U.S., but extend them also to America's close ally Israel -- routinely tarring the latter as an "apartheid state," a perpetrator of "war crimes," and a habitual violator of the human rights of Palestinians.
Along those lines, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) pointed out in 2009 that many senior staffers and researchers at Human Rights Watch (HRW) have compiled long track-recordsof extreme anti-Israel partisanship. For example, HRW staffer Joe Stork has referred disparagingly to the “Zionist colonization of Palestine”; the “Zionist settler-colonial enterprise”; the “Zionist theft of the property and productive resources"; Israel's “policy of provocation and brutal reprisal against Palestinians and Arabs”; and the “pernicious influence of the Zionist lobby.”
Like HRW, Amnesty International also aims a large share of its human-rights charges at Israel. In 2009, for instance, Amnesty's Irene Khan urged the U.S. government to consider carefully the accusations levied against Israel in the Goldstone Report, a document that unfairly charged the Jewish state with “war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity.” "It's the responsibility of the UN Security Council to take that report as seriously as it has taken reports for instance on the situation in Darfur," said Khan. "There can be no double standards for justice for war crimes or crimes against humanity."