Antecedents of the Idea of Human Rights

A Survey of Perspectives

2000 Occasional Paper
By Vizard, Polly

This paper surveys some of the antecedents of the modern idea of human rights. It begins with an analysis of the evolution of ideas of natural law and natural rights in Western ethical traditions and political thought. Some points of departure for responding to the relativist critique are then mapped out and the ideas of human rights thinkers and activists from around the world are examined in the context of different philosophies and religions. The paper concludes that in diverse countries and cultures, the presence of deep-rooted traditions of universalism, tolerance, freedom, concern for the poor and needy, interpersonal obligation and government responsibility provide foundations for the development of modern theories of human rights. Furthermore, the modern idea of human rights is itself changing and evolving in response to diverse influences. New conceptual frameworks are emerging for thinking about the cross-cultural foundations of human rights, and for thinking about human rights, poverty and development.