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History of human rights

Definitions of rights and democracy have changed over time. Owning slaves was once considered a right, as was the right to ban women from voting or preventing women from earning the same wage as a man. Human rights are also defined differently in different cultures. It was not until 1948 that a formal document was drawn up to define universal human rights.

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Human rights are not a recent concept. Discussion of rights and freedoms can be traced through societies for thousands of years, to the ancient civilisations of Babylon, China and India. Human rights are central to Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Islamic and Jewish teachings and were also central to the thinking of philosophers in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Prior to World War II, the general attitude was that human rights were a matter for nations to work out internally. The atrocities that were committed in World War II made human rights a universal concern. Today international law is based on universally accepted human rights principles.

United Nations declaration

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 with the aim of preventing the atrocities of World War II from ever happening again. The declaration urged member nations to promote a number of human, civil, economic and social rights. It asserted that these rights are part of the 'foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world'. The declaration was the first international legal effort to limit the behaviour of states.

Different groups and movements have managed to achieve many changes in the name of human rights throughout the 20th century. In many democracies, trade unions brought about laws granting workers the right to strike, establishing minimum out work conditions and forbidding or regulating child labour. The women's rights movement succeeded in gaining for many women the right to vote and movements by oppressed racial and religious minorities succeeded in many parts of the world.

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Global issues

Human rights aim for equality, fairness, freedom, justice and peace. The idea of human rights, however, is for the most part a general concept rather than a specific list of rights. It is possible for several people to all agree on a basic definition of human rights, but to disagree on the concept of human rights put into action.

Some of the current global issues regarding the abuse of human rights include: children, women, prisoners, refugees, people with disabilities, international justice and criminal courts, religious freedom, labour rights, HIV/AIDS, poverty, torture and slavery.

Perspectives on the issues

Throughout history there have been many cases of human rights violations. There are still cases of human rights violations occurring today. This is due, in part, to different perspectives. Some cultures, religions and economic and political structures differ on the ideas of human rights. War, for instance, can often prompt various violations of human rights on both sides of the conflict. Actions that one group may see as justified can be considered human rights violations by another group.

Children's rights

School attendance is mandatory in many countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States. The right to an education however, is still not available to many children around the world. Many countries throughout the world do not recognise the right of all children to have access to education, nor do they place a high value on education. Many places in the world use children as a cheap source of labour or as soldiers. These practices abuse the basic human rights of children to live unaffected by violence and to have time to play and relax.

Women's rights

Many women around the globe suffer from injustices and inequality. This includes both discrimination and violence towards women.

The right to vote was a right only given to men, generally only of certain ethnicities, for many years. The women's suffrage (voting) moment and universal (men and women from all ethnic backgrounds) suffrage movements have taken place over the course of hundreds of years. Although most countries have since abolished laws forbidding women to vote, there are still places in the world where women are denied this right while men are not.

Women have also been subject to many other cases of human rights abuse throughout history. Women have significantly suffered from gender discrimination and in some places in the world this discrimination still continues. Women have not only been denied the right to vote but also the right to own property, the right to an education and the right to have certain types of jobs. Currently, over 7 million adults in the world are illiterate and of these, about two-thirds are women.'

Human rights violations

Human rights violations have occurred throughout history. Most countries around the world today, including Australia, have in some way violated Articles in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Some notable human rights violations include:

  • Personal freedom in Tibet after the Chinese government forcibly took over Tibet in 1949. Since then Chinese forces have destroyed much of Tibet's cultural life and many Tibetans have been imprisoned, tortured, killed or forced to flee to other countries.

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  • Privacy in East Germany after the Second World War where relatives spied on each other.
  • Freedom of movement in Sri Lanka as the civil war between the two main ethnic groups (the Sinhalese and the Tamil) living on the island.
  • Freedom of thought in Iran where very strict religious rules are forced on the Iranian people.
  • Democracy in Chile which ruled for over 15 years by the military dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.
  • Education in Afghanistan where the Taliban prevented girls and women from getting an education and had to remain indoors for much of the time.


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