CONCEPT AND SIGNIFICANCE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Human suffering and misery in the remotest part of the world invariably affects the whole family of man. Man has to suffer, not only when the part of the world in which he is residing is visited by natural calamities like earthquakes, famines, floods, diseases etc, but occasionally also at the hands of men driven mad by power—political, economic or social. In both types of situations response from the rest of humanity is spontaneous. In the former case, it takes the form of efforts to bring relief to the stricken. But whenever man has been made to suffer at the hands of other men, the conscience of humanity has been outraged, and the cry has gone round for some sort of guarantees to afford protection to him against the tyranny of his fellow human beings, so that he can be assured of at least his rights to life, liberty and security of person.
Situations in which the call has gone out for such guarantees have arisen when a State has failed to protect foreigners against abuse by local authorities, or has adopted an oppressive or discriminatory attitude towards minorities or racial groups. There are quite a few such black spots in the annals of man. In the nineteenth century, heart-rending tales of atrocities committed by white slave traders on poor, ignorant Africans gave rise to cries of protest in Europe and America. Similarly the massacre of minorities in some countries in the Middle East horrified the world. Nearer our times, before and during World War II, the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler’s Germany on the Jews gave rise to widespread insistence that some mechanism must be evolved to assure international protection for basic human rights.
In fact such demands had been voiced earlier also. Through a series of treaties concluded after World War II, several European countries had accepted special obligations for the protection of racial and religious minorities, and had given the League of Nations the right to supervise the fulfillment of these obligations. But all this could not save thousands of German Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis. Therefore, after the Second World War had come to a conclusion and the victors met in San Francisco to draw up the blueprint of a new world free of strike, voices were raised urging that provisions covering human rights should be included in the Charter of the United Nations. As a result, the Conference accepted as one among the purposes of the United Nations “to achieve international co-operation….In promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for the fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion” (Article I of the U.N. Charter). The Charter specifically referred to “human rights” and “fundamental freedoms” at six other places, but it did not go beyond saying that the world body was to “promote” respect for them and to “encourage” their observance. Neither did it define these rights and freedoms in precise terms.
As the Charter, thus, did not create any definite obligations for the United Nations to fulfill, the task of drawing up a declaration of general principles and a treaty containing binding obligations was entrusted to a Commission—the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
The Declaration drawn up by the Commission recognized two types of human rights, viz., (i) civil and political, e.g., life, liberty and security of person, freedom from arbitrary arrest, imprisonment or exile, right to a fair trial, freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and (ii) economic, social and cultural rights, e.g., rights to work, social security, education, participation in the cultural life of the community, sharing in scientific advancement and its benefits and enjoying the arts. The declaration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly at its session held in Paris in 1948 and declared to be “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance”.
Although the Declaration defined human rights, yet there were more than one opinion as to its effect. Some wanted to accord to it the status of an international treaty or agreement whereas there were others who refused to accept it as a statement of legal obligations. In any case, it had served to enunciate in precise terms the obligations, which members of the U.N. had already accepted while subscribing to its Charter. On its basis, the General Assembly condemned the apartheid legislation enacted by South Africa as “contrary to the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
To make the enforcement of human rights more effective, the General Assembly charged the Commission on Human Rights with drawing up two covenants in treaty form—one covering civil and political rights and the other dealing with economic; social and cultural rights. The task was beset with difficulties but the Commission fulfilled it and the two covenants were unanimously adopted by the world today. These covenants define the rights referred to in the Declaration even more precisely and also embody provisions directing signatory States to enforce the civil and political rights through legislative action and provision of adequate remedies against violation of such rights. The enforcement of economic, social and cultural rights has, however, been made contingent upon availability of resources. The “measures of implementation” embodied in the covenants also envisage arrangements for an international review of the manner in which States carry out their obligations under them.
Ultimately, the sanction behind this body of international law, which has been created on the subject, is the universal dictates of humanity. That is why the Declaration and the relative covenants may sometimes appear to be transgressing a State’s right to deal with its citizens as it sees fit. But till the ideal of one world has been achieved, it is certain that no international organization will be able to override the authority of supreme national bodies in each State.
However, it can be expected that States will find inspiration for their attitudes and actions in the standards set by the international community represented in the United Nations. The main instrument at the disposal of the world body is exposure to world public opinion. The reporting procedure under the international covenants is designed to give publicity to the progress made by each country in enforcing human rights and the obstacles it encountered in the process.
Although this is about all that the international community can do to enforce human rights, yet humanity will underrate the task at its own peril. States, which do not recognize basic human rights or deny them to their citizens, are, sooner or later, bound to find them heading towards political and social unrest.
Men cannot hope to rid the world of the scourge of civil and international conflicts nor make it a safe place till they have created for each member of the human race conditions of life which allow for full development and unrestricted use of human intelligence and capabilities, so that man should not only be able to satisfy his physical and spiritual needs, but also seek fulfillment in other ways. Till this has been assured, the fires of strife and conflict will go on shouldering in the world and lasting peace on earth will remain an empty dream, therein lies the significance of human rights and their enforcement.