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Evolution of Human Rights


Human rights are considered to be sacrosanct. It is the set of rights with which a person is born. These rights ensure that a person has a good standard of living. Human rights give people good life full of happiness and prosperity. Each human right plays a very crucial role in shaping a person’s life. Human rights are mostly referred to as fundamental or inherent, birthrights. These rights are not created by any state or any legislation and neither are they subjected to any kind of amendment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines human rights as the right derived from the inherent dignity of a human person. Human rights are inclusive of civil and political rights. These rights usually limit the government authority that may affect the individual’s independence. There are also rights called ‘social rights’ where the government has various ways to improve the life quality of the citizen.


Some notable characteristics that define human rights are-

  1. Human rights are inalienable– Human right is a right given to a person even when the person is in the womb. These rights are given to a person irrespective of his religion, creed, sex, or nationality. His mere existence gives him this right.
  2. Human rights are necessary and essential– In absence of human rights, a person cannot achieve their fullest potential. Physical welfare, moral welfare, and social welfare are adversely affected without human rights.
  3. Human rights are in connection with human dignity– Human rights are about treating people with dignity; giving them respect as normal individuals irrespective of gender or race. Example: African Slaves were treated badly by the Americans, they were given many sorts of punishment like whipping, mutilation, raping, burning, etc.
  4. Human rights are irrevocable– Human rights cannot be taken away from any person as they originate from the social nature of the person, merely because he is a human he is enshrined with these rights.
  5. Human rights are dynamic– Human rights are not static, they cannot be defined in a restricted sense, and people change with respect to changes in time. Formulation of different treaties and conventions with change in time is a depiction of the dynamic nature of human rights.
  6. Human rights are never absolute– Human is a social animal, he can enjoy all of their rights without any restrictions but for a common good, the state may impose some restrictions and they can be only imposed by the state.


Human rights originated in 539 BCE, when Cyrus the Great captured Babylon, Cyrus freed all the slaves and said that all men are free, they can choose any religion and must have racial equality. Then in the year 1215 Magna Charta introduced the concept of Rule of Law wherein it defined basic idea of rights and liberties for all persons. Rule of Law concept mentions the sense of accountability, stability, equality and access to justice for all. Magna Charta was signed in 1689.

The Declaration of Rights of Man and of Citizen in 1789 which was adopted by the French National Assembly is a historical event based on the political concerns of civil and political rights. This declaration contained principles that inspired French Revolution. This declaration has specified some aspects of rights of liberty, private property, right to participate in elections, freedom of religion but these rights were not fully established due to the fall of French National Assembly in 1791. During this time the famous principles of some political thinkers like Rousseau, that good government must have freedom of all its citizens and Montesquieu, who argued the elimination of idea of Divine Rights of the King to Rule and if people are not satisfied with the rule of the king then they can rebel; gained popularity. These ideas have enlightened some kind of knowledge about human rights to common people. This resulted in French Revolution of 1789. During the 17th -18th century, it was considered an enlightenment stage where the people themselves were taught about their rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

The Second Generation of Human Rights in 19th century emerged when people realized that the rights which were stated in the 17th century were only established for some class of people. The poor and weaker sections hardly had leverage to exercise these rights. They realized that civil and political rights can be established by the people of the elite class. So the primary focus during these times was economic, social and cultural rights. The views originated from socialist thinkers like Marx and Lenin emerged about a stage of communist revolution for the welfare of the people and that state must ensure the welfare to the people so that people can reach up to their maximum potential. There must be democratic centralism and there must be an establishment of one party socialist state. The intervention of state is more here. This included the right to work, right to a standard of living, right to health and right to education. They are termed as the welfare rights as they pertain to the development of the people.

The Third Generation of human rights emerged with dynamic nature of human activities that affected the globe. The world suffered from two world wars. Geneva Convention and Hague Convention promoted basic level of dignity of individuals. The concerns over the protection of certain minority nations and peaceful co-existence were raised by the League of Nations at the end of First World War. Due to some political reasons and rise of dictatorship, it led to the fall of League of Nations. Then Second World War happened and thousands of lives were lost during that time; treatment of Jews in the concentrated camps, atomic bombing in Japan horrified the world and human rights were propagated as the global consciousness and eventually this led to rise of United Nations Organisation in 1945. There are other specialized agencies like International Labour Organisation for protecting workers rights increasing their safety and economic growth. People also did not like the concept of nation state so they thought for the benefit of whole mankind. They thought that all humans must get benefit in the process of human rights, the emergence of solidarity rights came into existence where rights were not spoken for a people in a specific country but in the whole world.

During the Fourth Generation of human rights, there were many technological developments and there were few growing concerns that whether the technology would encroach on human rights. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was established in 1948. Although UDHR is not legally binding it has different ways which keep a check and balance the exercise of state power and how a state should treat its citizens. There were other international covenants on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and Civil and Political Rights constituting the International Bill of Rights. It is mandatory now that all members of the UN must incorporate the provision of human rights in their constitution. UN has also adopted various treaties including conventions to prohibit various kind of crime that is against humanity like Convention on Elimination of All Form of Discrimination against Women and Convention on Rights of the Child.

Constitution of India contains basic human rights of all citizens, irrespective of their gender, caste, religion etc. India had signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on January 1942. If a part in the constitution is against the fundamental right then it is declared as void. These sections are vital elements of the constitution which includes Right to Equality, Right to Freedom, Right against Exploitation, Right to Freedom of Religion and Right to Constitutional Remedies among others.

In Kesavananda Bharati v State Of Kerala1 case it was stated that Universal Declaration of Human Rights may not be legally binding instrument but it shows how India understood the nature of human rights at the time the constitution was adopted. In Consumer Education & Research v Union Of India & Others2 case it was stated that the directive principles are the forerunners of UN Convention on right to development. The right to development is inalienably a human and fundamental right and everyone is entitled to it, along with being entitled to enjoy economic, social cultural and political development. In Air India Statutory Corporation v United Labour Union & Ors3 case it was held that right to health and medical care is a fundamental right of a worker under Article 21, read with Articles 39(e), 41, 43, 48A to make the life purposeful. In Mrs. Valsamma Paul v Cochin University And Others4 case it was stated that human rights are derived from the dignity and human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent.


Human rights are the basic rights given to every individual to achieve their maximum potential. Human rights have a very long way of history and development. India has also enshrined human rights in Part III and IV of the Constitution which are the fundamental rights and directive principles. Violation of fundamental rights will eventually cause a legislation to be declared void. All rights are covered under these two parts. Further, as part of the fourth generation of human rights, one needs to be careful about the fast developing technologies. In future there may be fusion of nuclear, biological, chemical and technological aspects which need to be looked at carefully and we must protect the human dignity at any cost. There might be future risks regarding human rights preservation and necessary steps must be taken to protect it. Though the human rights have several articles and conventions among nations, there is only limited progress of human rights as many people suffer from extreme poverty or they suffer from the policies of their own states. So, the human rights in future must be further progressive, giving everyone in this world a dignified life.


  1. SC Writ Petition (civil) 135 of 1970.

2. 1995 AIR 922, 1995 SCC (3) 42.

3. SC Civil Appeal Nos. 15536-37, 15532-15534 of 1996 (Arising out of SLP (C) Nos. 7418-19/92 and 12353-55/95).

4. 1996(1) SC 571.

This article is written by Sree Lekshmi B J, a third year law student.

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