We are challenged both by the events of our time and by our faith commitments to support human rights. Brutal warfare, starvation, ethnic cleansing, and religious intolerance make the struggle for human rights more necessary than ever. At the same time greater cooperation in some places among people of different faith traditions and the support within their communities for human rights make the struggle for human rights more encouraging.
Prior to World II international law was simply the law of nations, and thus the rights of a human person were the rights granted by his or her government. No person, therefore, had any rights in a country other than her own, unless through a treaty her own country had secured rights for its citizens in that foreign country. In the first half of this century persons might claim "natural rights," such as those affirmed in the American Declaration of Independence, but these were only recognized and enforceable by the laws of individual countries. Up until the middle of this century legal rights were "citizen rights" rather than human rights.
This understanding of rights was supported by accepted theories of jurisprudence in the West, which defined laws as the decisions of governments and recognized no source of "higher law." Adherence to this theory, however, was shattered by the acts of Nazi Germany during World War II, because the Nazis attempted to exterminate the Jews by means of laws passed by the German parliament. Within the state of Germany, therefore, the arrest, detention, and murder of Jews was "legal." These Nazi laws were morally wrong, but the prevailing theory of law at the middle of the 20th century provided no standard for judging the acts of a state to be illegal.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed without dissenting vote by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 and is the foundation of international human rights law, affirms that "the peoples of the United Nations have in the (UN) Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." Human rights cannot simply be derived from legal precedents of the past, nor from empirical evidence or logic, but require a "leap of faith." This is true, whether or not one is "religious.”
The Nuremberg trials after World War II asserted a higher standard of law than the sovereign state, and the United Nations codified this as international human rights law. Since 1948 these laws have grown to include numerous covenants (treaties) and international regulatory mechanisms, such as the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations. At the same time the number of nations in the UN has expanded rapidly, due to the liberation of peoples in Africa and Asia from colonial rule. The UN has become more prominent, if no less controversial, and assertions of human rights have continued to capture international attention.
In the last fifty years human rights have also expanded conceptually. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was dominated by notions of civil and political rights, which are most familiar to Westerners. But economic and social rights concerning employment, food, shelter, education and health care were also affirmed. More recently, accompanying the growing strength of formerly colonized peoples in the UN, cultural and peoples rights have been asserted. We see here a shift in emphasis from the individual to the group and from protecting a person’s dignity from state intrusion to ensuring that that the state provides communities with the elements of life deemed necessary for human dignity — food, water, clothing, shelter, education, and adequate health care.