(This was written in December 2009 for the class of Prof. Wiktor Osiatynski.)

What Events in History Triggered the Birth of Human Rights?
By Cheryl L. Daytec

Historically, rights consciousness is a response to reigns of terror or abuse of royal or state prerogatives. It is the aftermath of the realization that there are taboos attached to human dignity that a State must not break. And such realizations are arrived at only after taboos are broken. Human beings’ reactions are constructs of events around them, but the dissenting response is inspired by a proclivity inherent in the nature of human beings- the desire for self-preservation and the avoidance of any stimulus that threatens existence.

For example, human rights activists in despotic regimes are campaigning for the right against extrajudicial and summary killings and enforced disappearances. Their campaigns, which have been articulated on international platforms, are spurred by actual experiences and not by some imagined phenomenon. Before extrajudicial killings became part of the menu of oppression, the right against it was beyond human mental conception. But when political activists started to disappear without a trace or surfaced as decomposing corpses or bones, the rejection of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances was spontaneous, brought out by a collective rage coming from within the human nature.

In the ideal society where people live in a state of freedom or security, the concept of right may be a strange phenomenon or outlandish notion. People might not even be aware that they are living in a state of freedom. But when the state of freedom is shaken, people suddenly realize its worth and they also give a name to its antithesis. They may call it despotism, tyranny, oppression or bondage.

The Magna Carta was conceived as a response to over-centralization of powers and decision-making in the monarchy.[1] The King, hoisting the power trident practically controlled the lives, liberties and properties of the nobles whose cup eventually overflowed. And yet even then they did not use the polemics of rights in the Magna Carta that they coerced the King into inking.

The American Declaration of Independence was a defensive response to what was perceived as abuse of power: excessive taxation without representation.[2] Although no bill of rights was incorporated in the original United States Constitution, rights became central to its parlance in succeeding years with a series of amendment to append provisions limiting the power of the State for the protection of life, liberty and property. And even so, what were incorporated as rights were those that the men (for apparently women were excluded from the public sphere by a society that was still unable to conceptualize gender equality) at the helm of the new State considered necessary at that time. There was no right to privacy, for instance. Such right would eventually be invoked, and would be invoked in the judicial sphere, when the State invaded bedrooms of homosexuals[3] and married couples using contraceptives, [4] and telephone booths where people were exchanging private conversations.[5] Truly, experience defines necessity.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 came in the wake of opposition to absolutism[6] when the monarchy was consolidating every facet of power unto itself, placing itself some notches above the law. Conscious that absolutism would negate human nature, the enlightened population revolted against the monarchy to install a popular government. Whether indeed a popular government was installed is another story however. The point is the Declaration was generated by opposition to tyranny.

Although the above-mentioned documents did not use the term human rights, they were inspired by the conviction that human beings have inalienable entitlements that the State cannot deny, much less abrogate. In short, rights insinuate themselves into the language of every tongue when States overstep the boundaries of their power and break those taboos that cloister human dignity from assault.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is no different. It came as a response to the World War II and this response was international. World War II witnessed the commission of unprecedented crimes against humanity, foremost of which was the Holocaust, that shocked the collective conscience of the globe. Desperate to prevent the duplication of the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity, States came together and haphazardly put together a document whose contents were based on different ideologies, rights conceptions and religious tenets. As Prof. Osiatynski put it, it was a product of compromise that was imposed on, although generally accepted by, the adopting States.[7] This goes to show that the world was desperate, its sense of security rendered fragile by World War II, that compromise was very palatable if only to unite States into adopting a document that would close the gates to another Holocaust or similar war.

How proficient people speak the language of human rights is a product of their experiences. In his paper, Prof.Osiatynski points to the fact that even to legal luminaries of the United States of America, human rights might be a somewhat penumbral concept. Its Constitution has a meager enumeration of rights compared, for example, to the Philippine Constitution whose Bill of Rights is very extensive. Drafted and ratified after the twenty-year Marcos martial law dictatorship, it expanded the Bill of Rights of the Constitution it preceded to impose limitations on State power (such as limiting the imposition of martial law to a maximum of 60 days on grounds of rebellion and invasion, and only when public safety requires it,[8]) to guarantee rights that were sacrificed during the martial rule, such as the rights against being held incommunicado and torture,[9] and to impose conditions for the validity of waivers of certain rights such as the right of the accused to counsel which may be waived in writing and in the presence of a counsel.[10]

The Philippines has a human rights record that is probably one of the most dismal in the world. It has been named the second most dangerous place in the world for journalists. The persecution of political activists, the disappearance and summary executions of over a thousand human rights defenders and journalist have caught the concern of the United Nations.[11] But is there an invocation by any sector of American society of their right against enforced disappearances and summary killings? There is none, because such atrocities are beyond the limits of their experiences. People will only invoke if not discover those natural rights inalienable in their beings when their nature is disrupted.

The world is likewise claiming the right to clean air after experiencing the effects of the ozone layer depletion. It is now considered a basic human right, and several international conventions of States are being held and treaties are being signed in its name. Its invasion of the legal dictionaries as such is a product of human experience, which is part of human history. Oxygen, like freedom, is ignored when abundant. But when the supply is cut or reduced, human beings struggle for it like a pitiful fish out of the water.

It can be said, without a scintilla of doubt, that rights evolution is the history of human beings responding to oppression in their environment. cldy/Dec2009

[1] Scott Davidson. “Historical Development of Human Rights” in Human Rights. 1993.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003)
[4] Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965)
[5] Katz v. US, 389 U.S. 347 (1967)
[6] Davidson, supra.
[7]Victor Osiatynski. “The Internalization of Human Rights” in Human Rights in the Democracy Movements Twenty Years Ago –Human Rights Today. Hungarian Helsinki Committee: Budapest 2006
[8] Sec. 18, Art VII
[9] Sec. 12(2), Art. III
[10] Sec. 12 (1), Art. III

[11] Philip Alston. Mission to the Philippines: Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. Accessible from