The very first expression of human rights occurred in 539 B.C., written in cuneiform script as an edict issued by Cyrus the Great when he abolished slavery, declared racial equality and upheld religious freedom. Spreading across India, Greece and eventually Rome, this precursor of the modern construct for human rights recognized natural law and upheld that it is natural that human beings are entitled to rights.
The modern discourse on human rights evolved from the early attempts to secure for the individual protection from an abusive and intrusive state. In 1215, the Magna Carta sought to establish the basis for individual freedom, and the right to inherit and own property, and to be protected from excessive taxes by the English state. This notion of individual freedom vis-à-vis the state was reinforced in the Petition of Right (1628).
The birth of the United States played an important role in the evolution of the modern discourse on human rights. The US Declaration of Independence from England in 1776 upheld not only the right to revolution, but also reinforced the principle of individual rights. The US Constitution of 1787 and its attendant first 10 amendments that formed the Bill of Rights in 1791 strengthened the discourse on human rights by limiting the power of the federal government and emphasizing the rights of citizens.
The French Revolution led to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), fortifying individual rights by locating it in the context of being protected by law, which is an expression of the general will.
From the horrors of World War II, the United Nations was born in 1945, and three years later, in 1948, its members enacted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which established the principle that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
An analysis of the logic of the human rights discourse points to a celebration of individual freedom to enjoy the benefits and munificence of a developed, free and functional society where fundamental and basic needs, such as food, shelter and safety are already amply satisfied by an efficient state, which in political science we refer to as a “strong” state.
However, the historical narrative told by countries that rose from the ashes of colonial rule where structural inequalities were so pervasive, and where violence is no longer physical but also structural, has to be seen in a different context. People were dying not only from persecution, or from the guillotine, but also from hunger and disease that were bred by a highly dysfunctional post-colonial political economy, characterized by unjust distribution of political and economic power left behind by colonial rule, and by “weak” states. A weak state is one that is unable to enforce its own laws, and whose institutions are corrupted by political elites. Eventually, these structured inequalities led to political violence, when it fed into people’s resentments that produced armed struggle against dysfunctional and abusive political elites. The latter had to protect their power base, and retaliated through the use of state violence.
What complicates the situation in post-colonial societies is the pervasiveness of social institutions that value community, instead of the individual. This collectivist culture celebrated a discourse of rights that is less individualistic and instrumental, and more communal and reciprocal. In fact, while what is privileged in the modern discourse of human rights is the freedom of individuals from interference and abuse by the state, in post-colonial societies the aspiration is for the state to protect and enable the rights of the collective. Thus, social communities look up to the state to provide for basic needs of their class. Unfortunately, the state is weak and corrupted by political elites.
In order for the discourse of human rights to find authentic expression, it should be contextualized historically and culturally to take into consideration not only the nature of structural violence that prevails in societies that are struggling to shake off the ghosts of their colonial past. It must also take into account the inherent logic upon which people struggle for basic rights in the face of weak and dysfunctional states. The West may be preoccupied with the freedom to choose, and be heard, free and autonomous from state interference and violence, because their robust and strong states are already able to make their lives safe and comfortable.
However, there are countries like the Philippines where human rights have to find meaning in a government that is yet to live up to its social contract with the people and provide them their basic needs for food, shelter, safety and security.
Thus, while the dominant discourse on human rights finds expression in individuals seeking protection from state interference and violence, in some societies the more authentic meaning of human rights is expressed by communities asking the state to be strong in order for it to protect their rights being threatened by poverty and violence.