Human rights is a concept that has been constantly evolving
throughout human history. They been intricately tied to
the laws, customs and religions throughout the ages. One
of the first examples of a codification of laws that contain
references to individual rights is the tablet of Hammurabi.
The tablet was created by the Sumerian king Hammurabi
about 4000 years ago. While considered barbaric by today's
standards, the system of 282 laws created a precedent
for a legal system . This kind of precedent and legally
binding document protects the people from arbitrary persecution
and punishment. The problems with Hammurabi's code were
mostly due to its cause and effect nature, it held no
protection on more abstract ideas such as race, religion,
beliefs, and individual freedoms.
It was in ancient Greece where the concept of human rights
began to take a greater meaning than the prevention of
arbitrary persecution. Human rights became synonymous
with natural rights, rights that spring from natural law
. According to the Greek tradition of Socrates and Plato,
natural law is law that reflects the natural order of
the universe, essentially the will of the gods who control
nature. A classic example of this occurs in Greek literature,
when Creon reproaches Antigone for defying his command
to not bury her dead brother, and she replies that she
acted under the laws of the gods. This idea of natural
rights continued in ancient Rome, where the Roman jurist
Ulpian believed that natural rights belonged to every
person, whether they were a Roman citizen or not.
Despite this principle, there are fundamental differences
between human rights today and natural rights of the past.
For example, it was see as perfectly natural to keep slaves,
and such a practice goes counter to the ideas of freedom
and equality that we associate with human rights today.
In the middle ages and later the renaissance, the decline
in power of the church led society to place more of an
emphasis on the individual, which in turn caused the shift
away from feudal and monarchist societies, letting individual
The next fundamental philosophy of human rights arose
from the idea of positive law. Thomas Hobbes, (1588-1679)
saw natural law as being very vague and hollow and too
open to vast differences of interpretation . Therefore
under positive law, instead of human rights being absolute,
they can be given, taken away, and modified by a society
to suit its needs. Jeremy Bentham, another legal positivist
sums up the essence of the positivist view:
Right is a child of law; from real laws come real rights,
but from imaginary law, from "laws of nature,"
come imaginary rights
.Natural rights is simple nonsense.
(J.Bentham, Anarchichical Follies, quotes in N.Kinsella,
"Tomorrow's Rights in the Mirror of History"
in G. Gall, ed., Civil Liberties in Canada (Toronto:Butterworths,
This transfer of abstract ideas regarding human rights
and their relation to the will of nature into concrete
laws is exemplified best by various legal documents that
specifically described these rights in detail: