Essay on the Doctrine of Natural Rights

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These principles, it is claimed, are based upon the universal law, the law of nature, and are common to all people in all countries. They are the product of human nature, that is, all men are born with certain rights and these rights are inalienable.

The concept of Natural Rights originated in ancient Rome and came from the discovery that men of all races and countries living under Roman rule seemed to have some common rules of life, some objective standards of right and wrong given to them by the mere fact of their being men with human nature.

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This body of principles common to all men, the Romans called “Natural Law” and they based on it a considerable part of their legislation. Their principle of Natural Law finds its best explanation in the words of Cicero and there from flows the doctrine of Natural Rights.

He said, “The existence of a universal and world-wide law, which is one with reason both in nature and human nature, and which accordingly knits together in a common social bond every being that possesses reason, whether God or man, the principle of natural law becomes recognition of intrinsic worth in human personality, with the necessary implication of equality and universal brotherhood.”

The Natural Law is, as such, the law of reason and is of universal application. It binds the people together in a common social bond by recognising the intrinsic worth in human personality. For the real personal life, equality and universal brotherhood are the two prerequisites.

In the middle Ages, Natural Law was identified with the Law of God and of the Church and it no longer remained the assertion of the rights of man till it was revived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Locke was the first to restate it in purely philosophical terms, and he made it the source of political obligation. He assumed that certain rights were “natural” and, indeed, believed that the rights which the social contract was designed to protect were both natural to man and approved by God.

“The Law of Nature”, he said, “stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men’s actions must, as well as their own and other men’s actions, be conformable to the Law of Nature, i.e., to the will of God, of which that is a declaration, and the fundamental law, of nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good or valid against it.”

He also held that “the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent no one harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”

The need for a civil society was felt, according to Locke, because of the presence of certain inconveniences in the state of nature and men agreed to transfer some of the rights in order to safeguard the remaining natural rights; life, liberty and property.

Locke’s teachings had a profound effect on the Americans and the French, the fonner seeking to justify their struggle for independence and freedom from foreign control, and the latter seeking to justify revolt against arbitrary rule.

The American Declaration of the Rights of Man stated: “We hold these truths to be well-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”

Thirteen years later, these words of Jefferson echoed in the French National Assembly when it was declared that “the ignorance, the oblivion, the contempt of the rights of man was the only causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments.”

The Assembly resolved “to state in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man”, which were equality in rights, liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression together with the fact that sovereignty resides in the people.

These declarations gave a new emphasis to the doctrine of Natural Rights. While recognising the natural equality of men, they based consent as the only just basis for political obligation and set a norm for a free society wherein the happiness of man and his value of life would be universally revered.

They also extended a promise to mankind, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “that in due time the weight shall be lifted from the shoulders of men, and that all should be given an equal chance” to determine their destiny. The later statements of Natural Rights drew their inspiration from these historic declarations of the Rights of Man.

The Sociological School, during recent times, has given a new meaning to the theory of natural rights. They reject completely the notion that natural rights are those which belonged to man in primitive society and that he brought them with him when the State was established.

Natural rights, they maintain, are those immunities and freedoms of man which are conducive to the most effective functioning and rapid development of the social organism. What is natural must be in harmony with the essential conditions of existence and development of man.

Natural rights, as Professor Giddings says, “are socially necessary forms of right, enforced by natural selection in the sphere of social relations; and in the long run there can be neither legal nor moral rights that are not grounded in natural rights as thus defined.”

The doctrine of natural rights has been subjected to severe criticism. The term ‘natural’ has been given a variety of meanings and the concept of natural rights has, accordingly, varied with these interpretations.

Since the term ‘natural’ is used without any precise meaning, there is no common list of natural rights, which may be acceptable to all the advocates of the theory; men have disagreed about rights, as they have disagreed about everything under the sun. For example, there is no unanimity of opinion, even in our own times, whether men and women are by nature equal.

A British writer has claimed that six months scrutiny of a correspondence column revealed “a natural right to a living wage, a right to work, a right to trial by jury, a right to buy cigarettes after eight p.m., a right to camp in a caravan by the roadside, and a right to walk on the grouse moors of Scotland during the close season.” Then, rights cannot be independent of society and unless they are recognised and upheld by the State there is no substance in them.

The theory of the Contractualists that rights are pre-social or pre-political is untenable. Complete freed for everyone is a political impossibility. Nature gives to individuals certain powers. These powers are not rights.

They become rights when opportunity is given for their proper development and the State provides all such opportunities. Finally, there can be no inherent natural rights that are absolute under all conditions. Rights change with time and place and they do so according to the prevailing belief as to what is right and just.

Some rights which were considered natural in the past, such as the right of revenge or the right to own slaves or large estates of land, have turned out not to be rights at all in other times and places, and societies function fairly well without these.

If by natural rights we mean those rights which are inherently for the good of man and which tend to create conditions necessary to lead a happy and full life and ensure the realisation of his potentialities as a human being, we agree with it and citizens must be guaranteed such freedoms.

The State which does not guarantee these basic freedoms, denies to its citizens the very end for which it exists. Laski has aptly said, “Every State is known by the rights it maintains.

Our method of judging its character lies, above all, in the contribution that it makes to the substance of man.” Karl Deutsch ascribes to the concept of natural rights “an operational meaning.”

He explains that natural behaviour is probable behaviour. It is “likely to occur whenever it is not prevented by artificial” obstacles, that is, by obstacles which are less probable and which can be maintained only by special efforts or arrangements.”

He defines natural rights as rights “which people are likely to claim whenever not specifically restrained from doing so and likely to claim again as soon as the restraint ceases.”

Whether a particular right is a natural right in this sense one that is claimed spontaneously at many times and places is a question of fact and it is the task of Political Scientists to look at the facts “and to see whether and to what extent this is the case.”

Natural rights accepted as such “cannot be sold or signed away. By definition people will automatically claim it again as soon as no one stops them; and they will claim it anyway if they are strong enough.” They are “imprescriptible” and “inalienable.”

That there are certain basic rights, universal in nature, has been recognised by the Charter of the United Nations. The Charter has so much faith in the existence and reality of such rights that the clause about the promotion and encouragement of human rights and fundamental freedoms occurs five times in it.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed and proclaimed by the United Nations Assembly on December 10, 1948 lays down a minimum standard of human rights based on the “inherent dignity” and the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” It affirms that all human beings ought to be treated as equals, and as having a fundamental right to individual liberty.

But if we examine the practice of a number of States which approved the Declaration it would appear that they have interpreted very differently their common undertaking “to strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and, by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”

Soviet Russia refused to sign it, obviously for the reason that she did not believe in the principles of individual liberty as the majority of the members of the United Nations understood them.

There are differences of practice, however, among the signatories too. “Americans would no doubt consider that the class distinctions which exist in Great Britain infringed the principle of equality, whereas the British and Americans could both be charged with infringements of the principle of equality between races.”

General Ayub’s Martial Law regime in Pakistan suspended all basic freedoms set forth in the Declaration and a complaint to this effect was made in a communication by the Chairman of the International League for the Rights of Man to the Secretary General of the United Nations.

The World Conference on Human Rights, representing 160 countries that met at Vienna in June 1993, issued a declaration on the conclusion of its deliberations embodying its recommendations.

It urged the United Nations and its relevant organisations to proclaim a “U.N. decade for human rights” to promote and protect these rights and create conditions for their full enjoyment by the people of the world.

It recommended that the U.N. General Assembly, when examining the report of this conference, expedite the proposal to establish the post of a High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The incumbent of this office should be a senior official enjoying the full confidence and support of the Secretary General with the stature and resources necessary to give effect to new and important programmes outlined in the Vienna Declaration.

The conference called upon the International community to take necessary and effective steps to enhance cooperation to combat terrorism and its linkage in some countries to drug trafficking which aim at destruction of human rights, democracy, territorial integrity of States and destabilising of legitimately constituted governments.

It pointed out that the continuing acts of violence also aimed at undermining the quest for peaceful dismantling of apartheid.

The conference emphasised that democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. It affirmed that the right to development is an inalienable, universal and integrated right. The conference expressed its dismay on “ethnic cleansing” and systematic rape of women in war situations creating mass exodus.

The Vienna conference was described as a kind of second universal declaration of human rights. L.M. Singhvi, the deputy leader of the Indian delegation, said, “This is the stuff of a new revolution.

It is not as elegant, as precise, as terse, not as well put together as the earlier declaration of 1948, but it encompasses a whole range of developments which have taken place in the last 45 years, a whole range of concessions which have come to the threshold of human consciousness and whole lot of controversies which could not have been foreseen in 1948.”

The Vienna conference was held at the appropriate time when human rights movement was beginning to consolidate and no proper stocktaking had been done since the last international conference held in the late 1950s.

The final document that emerged from the 1993 conference is significant as it inspires all to go ahead with human rights as best as they can. But the most important aspect of this declaration is the acceptance that the right to self-determination does not mean the right to dismember another country.


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