What are the common historical denominators in the world’s most notorious violators of fundamental human rights? My theory is that first of all, from the 1500s through the 1700s they did not experience:
The invention of the printing press and spread of the printed word — > Growth of mass literacy and independent thinking –> Decline of religious authority –>
Protestant Reformation–>the scientific revolution–>Age of Reason–> Decline in superstition, magical explanations –> Emergence of great moral, natural and political philosophers (Luther, Calvin, Milton, Locke, Burke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire), separation of religion and state –>Rebellion against absolutism, rejection of divine right of kings –>Enlightenment–>concepts of individual freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Therefore they have no foundation, no framework to draw upon when rights are in conflict. I tried to teach my students in the Middle East (UAE and Turkey) these concepts. Students could grasp the ideas as a rationale for American and European freedoms as important for Europe and America, but most did not generally embrace or internalize them for their own country and culture. Hence, Middle Eastern and Asian countries suffer from egregious human rights violations today.
Contradicting my theory, Germany certainly did experience these things and yet it perpetrated one of the greatest human rights catastrophes of the 20th century, the Third Reich and the Holocaust. The printing press was invented in Germany, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation from there.
I’m not saying that a nation experiencing the Enlightenment is immune from egregious human rights violations in the future. Obviously, that’s not the case. But it is certainly easier for a nation like Germany to regain its equilibrium after World War II because its people had experienced religious and political tolerance earlier in its history.
This is a very different national experience than what, say, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE have experienced.
Amnesty International produced milestones in human rights history, citing seminal events in Persian (Iranian), British and French history that were adopted by other nations. Among them:
- CYRUS CYLINDER – c539-530BC. Cyrus II, King of Persia, began his reign by decreeing reforms on this clay cylinder. Most notably, he declared that exiled
slaves could return to their homelands and implies that there will be religious freedom throughout the Persian Empire.
- MAGNA CARTA – 1215. This Great Charter provided a new framework for the relationship between the King and his subjects. It established for the first time that
everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. Most famously, it gave all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial.
- PETITION OF RIGHT – 1628. This petition was sent by the English Parliament to King Charles I. It included the demands that the King could not tax the people without the Parliament’s consent nor imprison people without cause.
- BILL OF RIGHTS – 1689. This English document set out political and civil rights, including the freedom to elect Members of Parliament, the protection of free
speech in Parliament and that the king or queen could not interfere
with the law.
- DECLARATION OF THE RIGHTS OF MAN AND OF THE CITIZEN – 1789. This French Declaration set out the universal and inalienable rights of men/citizens (not women, unfortunately!) It stated that all are born equal and free, all can participate in civil and political life, can think and speak freely, be presumed innocent until proven guilty and that all have the right to own private property.