Human rights concepts, origins

The term ‘human rights’ has come into vogue in recent years and is constantly being deployed by lawyers, activists, advocates, politicians, philosophers, etc.

Human rights guarantee (at least in its conception and theory) the ability of every person to freely make choices about their lives, which eventually facilitate the innate development of humans and thereby create a conducive atmosphere to achieve our undoubted potential.

It is accepted that human beings have great potential for development and can only thrive and flourish if there are certain conditions available.

Therefore, the whole idea of human rights is to help foster and engender that freedom and equality, so that human beings can live free from arbitrariness, despotism, intolerance, discrimination and unfair treatment among the human race. 

Human rights theory

As is normal in any lofty project, human rights theory has not escaped criticism and sometimes vile opposition from a cross-section of people in many countries.

Notable among such critics are conservatives, far-right politicians and ultra-orthodox religious bigots, who constantly berate and criticise human rights theory as a discredited project associated with clueless liberals.

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Indeed, Jeremy Bentham, who ironically is heavily linked with one of my alma mater universities ― University College of London ― once described human rights as “nonsense on stilts”.

Thankfully, his eccentric and largely lopsided description of human rights theory has been debunked and discredited over the years as evidenced by the exponential development and acceptance of human rights discourse in contemporary jurisprudence of legal theory, at least by the United Nations, that has championed the cause of human rights since the end of the World War II after the atrocities of the Nazi regime in Germany. 


Contrary to received wisdom, human rights are not a recent phenomenon, as they have been with human beings throughout history even though they had not been conceptualised and designated as human rights.

Concepts of human dignity, ethical behaviour and justice have been constantly recurring themes in the jurisprudence and governance of antiquity.

From the early civilisations of Babylon, where one of the prominent lawgivers of the ancient world, Hammurabi, gave the world what has been called the Hammurabi Code, throughout ancient China where Confucius featured prominently, to the Greco-Roman era, human rights have been central to issues of proper governance and freedoms duly acknowledged and practised throughout the world.

The concept of human rights, as we know it, gained prominence in the Middle Ages, especially during the period of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance.

This period in human history witnessed the emergence of the theory of ‘Natural Law’, largely seen as divine law coming directly from God, which the prominent jurists at the time emphasised was a superior law to the laws of the sovereign kings which were, for the most part, authoritarian and unjust. 

It was against this backdrop that the Magna Carta, the acknowledged first formal charter of rights of the modern world, was born.

It sought to limit the untrammelled power of the kings in the exercise of absolute power, thereby making them accountable, as well as spelling out the rights of citizens vis-a-vis monarchical power.

Modern strands of human rights law relating to the protection from unjust and arbitrary laws, as well as the rudiments of fair trial provisions, have their origins in the great Magna Carta. 

I will look subsequently at examples of instances of the abuse of the rights of Ghanaians and how the implementation of human rights can have a practical impact on people’s daily lives to ensure a freer, fairer and more just society. 

The writer is a lawyer.

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