Development of Human Rights Over Time

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 8
Words: 2195
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: Master


The modern elements of human rights existed and remained functional in both Western and non-western societies from ancient times. However, the idea of tying human rights on individual rights to life and liberty was formed in the eighteenth century. The great civilizations from the past played a major role in this conceptualization because their basics were a result of the foundations and traditions of that time (“What are Human Rights”, n.d.). The eighteenth century marked the peak of human rights conception during the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (Sutto, 2019). The evolution of human rights development has been a result of the increased inalienable needs of humans.

Over the years, human rights have evolved through three generations, with each being caused by different needs of the time. The first wave was a result of concerns about civil and political rights. In the eighteenth century, people grew restless about their civil and political rights, forming the first wave of the fight. Later on, there was an increased demand for economical, social, and cultural rights that triggered the second wave/generation (Jensen, 2017). There is currently the third generation of human rights whose purpose is to seek peace, development, and a sustainable environment collectively referred to as solidarity rights. There probably will be the fourth wave soon addressing what the first three missed out on.

Simply being a human being should guarantee people a life of dignity and one that is worth living. They deserve to be protected and their humanity preserved; human rights do that. Human rights are universally accepted rights and freedoms that facilitate a happy, fulfilling life for all human beings (“Peace, dignity, and equality on a healthy planet”, n.d.). The champions of human rights all over the world have always been citizens and not government officials. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have stood out over the years in their efforts to recruit the world into being more accommodative of human rights issues. For example, NGOs took a stand against all forms of women’s oppression during the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference in China. This act influenced more people to join in the fight for women’s rights. With the help of NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Survivors International, how different states conduct and handle human rights issues remains in check.

Three Generations of Human Rights

Human Rights have gradually developed in their numerous formulations from the mainstream Magna Carta in 1215, the Bill of rights or Declaration of Rights in 689 to the post-World War II United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Prior works of political philosophers throughout history led up to the formation of these declarations. In 1979, Czech jurist Karel Vasak came up with three well-defined, overtop, yet connected human rights generations (Mazel, 2018). Despite the severe criticism of the three generations’ ideas since their inception, they have been useful tools to scholars, activists, and pundits. It is quite hard to look up human rights without coming across an author that has not directly or indirectly referred to Vasak’s concept in their discussions. Vasak’s concept has broken down the separate groups through history according to their specific features in a way that is easy to understand and relate to even for generations to come (Mazel, 2018). Human rights have evolved to allow self-development among individuals.

Civil and Political Rights

The first generation of human rights emerged between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It emerged as a theory that focused on addressing the political concerns of the time (Zysset, 2018). The main issue was that powerful leaders like the American colonialists exercised full authority on their subjects without any form of empathy as long as their demands were met. It appeared that each human being had the right to have an opinion or influence over the policies that governed them. It was important to advocate for personal liberty and protect people against violations by the government (Domaradzki et al., 2019). Today, all the civil and political rights are clearly outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and also in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) (Domaradzki et al., 2019). Some of the rights under this group are prohibition from torture, property rights, and right to life, the right to a fair trial, equality before the law, and the right to vote.

These rights are keen to emphasize individual liberties that make it possible for people to participate freely in political and civil life. They mainly protect people living in different nations, citizens or not, from abuse by the state. During the period of the Cold War, countries of the Soviet block and those of the western democracies criticized each other on what they individually felt was important for their people (Domaradzki et al., 2019). Those from the Soviet bloc were criticized for disregarding civil and political rights, while those from the western democracies for neglecting social and economic rights (Domaradzki et al., 2019). This illustrates how easily human rights can be politically abused to benefit the few at the top.

Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights

Over the years, human dignity required appropriate measures to live and work together with little or no difficulties accessing the necessities of life. Therefore, the need to eliminate inequity and inadequate availability of the needed social and economic goods, services, and opportunities became inevitable (Domaradzki et al., 2019). As industrialization spread and the working class grew in numbers, the oppressed class realized they needed more than just minimal state interference (Zysset, 2018). These rights require that the government equally distribute and avail social necessities such as healthcare, rights to recreation, privacy, and freedom from discrimination; economic needs that include the right to work, reasonable standards of living, shelter, and pension for the aged and disabled (Mazel, 2018). Finally, cultural rights such as the right to fully participate in cultural life within their communities and equal protection from the law.

Solidarity Rights

As well as the previous ones, this generation of rights came up as a result of the human’s changing needs and ideas about human dignity, in addition to new and existing threats such as inadequate food supply to third world countries and opportunities for advanced technology and infrastructure (Zysset, 2018). In this case, humans developed a better understanding of the obstacles that may hinder them from realizing the rights of the previous generations. These rights advocate for solidarity or collectiveness in realizing them (Domaradzki et al., 2019). This means that an individual cannot achieve them without other people’s help. For example, one person cannot maintain a clean environment or ensure there are no wars in the world. Examples of rights in this generation include development, a friendly environment, peace, humanitarian assistance, communication, and sharing in discovering and experiencing the common heritage of mankind.

To some people, this is the vaguest generation of human rights yet. The idea of defining human rights collectively is a risk; human rights can only be held individually. This guarantees that neither the government nor other people can interfere with a person’s freedom to enjoy their rights The main concern is that some regimes may take advantage of this to severely deprive people of their basic rights in the name of upholding collective rights (Zysset, 2018). For instance, a government could deny its citizens the right to an election to vote for their leaders to avoid getting into the war. Additionally, unlike in the first and second generations, where the state was responsible for safeguarding them, these will be safeguarded by the international community. Accountability in such a case is impossible to guarantee. There are no strategies that, for example, ensure that there is peace in the Middle East or that the deforestation in the Amazonian forest stops. Who ensures that the offenders are punished, or those holding their end of the bargain are motivated to continue? However, there is a general agreement among those interested in the subject that these rights are necessary (Ishay, 2017). Further research should be done to propose the best strategy to handle these agreements.

Human Rights Theories

Various bases have steered the development of human rights. Understanding these bases ensures that people, albeit differently, understand the particular benefits obtained from protecting human rights. Most people uphold the idea that human rights exist to protect the dignity of human life. This is clearly stated in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights when it states that the rights of human beings flow from “the inherent dignity of the human person” (Boersema, 2018). Conceptualizing the idea of human rights around this concept is the most appealing because human life is perceived differently from that of other animals as they can cultivate the quality of their lives. Jack Donnelly (2016) endorses this view when he writes that human needs are not essential to promote health but rather for things that are vital to realizing a life of dignity. Unfortunately, this school of thought paves the way for the world to set unrealistic universal moral standards (Boersema, 2018). Who decides what particular conception of dignity is right or wrong?

The other most upheld reason for having human rights is the necessity for human well-being. Allan Gewirth (2019) is one of the strongest advocates for this approach. While he agrees with Donnelly that human’s moral nature led to the existence of humans, he differs with him on the idea that human rights are an ethical vision of human dignity (Zysset, 2018). Other than human rights being a product of morality, they ensure people are protected and free to engage in the community to guarantee human agency. According to Gerwith (2019), the rights bestowed upon an individual should equal their mental or physical power over the agency (Gerwith, 2019). This notion is unsettling as it translates to some human beings being entitled to more or better human rights than others. Critics of this approach, such as Douglas Husak, argue that it is impossible to have universal rights if they are dependent on an individual’s capacity for agency.

Anti-oppressive Social Work Theories and Practices

Social work practitioners witness the difficult situations people living within the minority groups find themselves in every day. Their moral, ethical and legal obligation is to fight for equality and create solutions for the less privileged. This profession draws its insights from the different disciplines of sociology, philosophy, history, psychology, and politics. This has resulted in a multidiscipline theoretical framework that has equipped its people well enough to understand and respond to the different situations caused by oppression (Wiseberg, 2017). Theories in social work make it possible for social workers to analyze and understand situations, create interventions and predict and evaluate the outcomes without the interference of personal beliefs and assumptions. Picking a particular theory that fits a certain situation can be challenging, it is often much easier to get the relevant knowledge from multiple theories and use the understanding to create a multifaceted intervention. For instance, social workers can use social existence theory to understand their clients’ relationships. With this knowledge, they find techniques to connect better with their clients and create a worker-client relationship that benefits the client.

To come up with the anti-oppressive practices that equip social workers with the foundation to conduct an assessment that is theorized and empowering, Clifford came up with several principles to guide them (as cited in Wiseberg, 2017). The principles are related, interconnected, and overlap at all times (Wiseberg, 2017). They create an understanding of the social worker to come up with solutions that match up the complex struggles of power, powerlessness, and oppression that are the determinants of how the lives of the receivers of social care services turn out. In addition, everything is tied down to the dignity and worth of the people receiving the services and the importance of human relationships, as stated in the Australian Code of Ethics for Social Workers (2020). A code of ethics ensures they remain guided and true to their course.


Through the existence of human rights, human beings can live a worthy life without fear of their existence being threatened by oppression. A majority of the population holds that rights are critical because they preserve the dignity of people’s lives, while others argue that their purpose is to ensure the well-being of people. All in all, the end goal of fighting for human rights is to ensure that people live comfortably while respecting others and not violating their privacy. People’s rights have developed over the years to match up with the inevitable changes in individual needs. There are three generations of every person’s rights, with the third one emerging as a result of the realization that there are a lot of challenges to achieving the other existing rights. All human beings should be treated with regard and respect, regardless of their gender, class, or race. Social workers strive to ensure this is achieved through their anti-oppressive practices but are met with numerous challenges that must be addressed. NGOs in addition to other international entities have played a great role in providing necessary support to social workers.


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