Human rights are a broad and a rather complicated concept in that even finding a standard definition for them has triggered many unsuccessful debates among intellectuals and philosophers. However, some scholars chose to define human rights etymologically by tracing the origin of the word right from the old English word “riht” and old Welsh word “reiz”. This was a word to mean something straight on the basis of morals and conduct. These therefore viewed human rights as something that is morally acceptable and correct. However, in the past centuries many philosophers like Aristotle, Plato and Jean Jacques Rousseau also attempted to define human rights. Plato argues that in reality we have two aspects, that is, the physical and the non-physical. He however thinks that the non-physical is the most important because it shapes the physical. This is referred to as ‘Platonic Dualism.
Similarly, good governance is another concept that has triggered many debates because people’s views on governance are rather contradictory. Defining good governance is as old as humanity. Human beings are naturally born in societies and to run these societies we need rulers who actually form a government. Philosophers tried so hard to describe what governance and good governance is all about. Plato, a famous philosopher, advanced his ideas of a good government as one that is not a democracy but the rule of good men while Aristotle says that governance of good men must have good laws to restrain their aggressiveness. The contemporary definition of good governance however refers to the application of state institutions and instruments to achieve the common good.
Human rights and governance are both aspects of a good society and the observations explained below show the evolutionary nature of both governance and human rights. Human rights are always evolving and so is governance. Human rights and governance have been through stages of ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary stages so has governance as expressly discussed below; with each phase of government comes new ideas on the understanding of human rights.
In the ancient times, human rights were a rather strange idea and human rights hardly existed during the ancient times. In most western countries the most important ideology was individualism and this was majorly spread by economists like Karl Marx. Under individualism personal interests were of essence while the rights of other individuals or groups of people were not of great concern. Another idea was communitarianism where the interests of the community were the most important and in any case if the interests of an individual conflicted with those of the community, then those of the society were held superior over those of the individual. In the ancient times, all individuals minded most was fulfilling their responsibilities and duties to the society and also loyalty to their leaders. In this state human rights were less regarded and governance under such a rule as that of natural law. Individuals believed that their rulers were naturally endowed with leadership and also chosen by God. In this governance there were no principles like constitutionalism, responsiveness and many other aspects of good governance were disregarded.
With time, individuals were drawn to the attention of human rights. It is under the basis of equality and fighting to promote equality, justice and also define human rights. It was in this stage that the definition of human rights became fundamental. The struggle to define human rights still continues even today. Due to the belief that human rights are dynamic and it is therefore hard to describe what human rights really are. However, it is in the medieval period that scholars like John Locke in his book “The second treatise on civil government” of 1632 that he explains that no one is inferior or superior to the other and that each person would protect him/ herself as best as they could. Similarly, during this period many treaties on human rights protection were signed and new philosophers came to object the belief of the rule of the natural law. It is therefore under this that the rule of the supreme leaders was limited for example in 1215 archbishop Stephen Langnot and the Barons forced King John of England into signing the Magna Carta 1215. Similarly in 1648 the treaty of Westphalia was signed. And it forced the rule of kings and other supreme rulers to rule under the new form governance introduced as their powers were to be regulated by the treaty and the rules to be followed were coded. This rule is known as constitutionalism. These coded rules constituted principles and guidelines on how to rule and also included human rights. The Magna Carta influenced the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights in its article 21, “no freedom ought to be taken or imprisoned, or disseized of his freehold, liberties, or privileges, or outlawed, or exiled or in any manner destroyed, deprived of his life, liberty or property, but by the judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”
After the numerous events that had transpired within the medieval period, the take on human rights advanced with the development of a new class of leaders like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Mirabeau de Comte and many others who took part in the French revolution of 1789, the American war of independence 1775. These events took place as an effect of the repressive rule that had transpired in Europe, America and Africa. It is noted that all over the world, the French revolution of 1789, was a model for all other revolutions in the world. During the medieval period, people knew about human rights but the idea of enforcing human rights was closest to impossible. Following the events of 1775 and 1789 in America and France respectively that followed the drafting of the “declaration of the rights of man and the citizen” (Déclaration des droits d’hommes et du citoyen) and the bill of rights. However, the French declaration on the rights of man was received with mixed feelings of appreciation and criticism. And this forced many other scholars like Burke. Thomas Paine to rise in support of the French declaration in his book “the rights of man” (1792) and it is in this book that he shows the evolutionary nature of human rights and governance. He stated that “if any generation of men ever possessed the right of dictating the mode by which the world should be governed forever, it was the first generation that existed and if that generation did not; no succeeding generation can show any authority for doing it, nor can set any up”. This was regarded as the fundamental foundation for the devolution of human rights.
The human rights evolution continued following the foundation laid by the revolution in France and America. It is here that the devolution of human rights took on yet another great turn and took up the time of many. However, following the change of political systems during this time including the scramble and partition of Africa, introduction of new political ideas like Nazism under Hitler in Germany and Fascism under Benito Mussolin in Italy which involved mass degradation of human dignity and also exposing the cruelty and savagery that is supposedly imbedded within humanity, the world experienced some of the most cruel acts of humans against fellow humans and it is at this point that the development of human beings was at a great set back as people’s idea on human rights greatly changed. Many events including the two world wars transpired and this left the world community devastated by the dehumanising acts of the events as the human beings were reduced to the level of wild beasts. However individuals like Wilson Woodrow came up with idea of “the fourteen points” as a way of resolving the world’s insurgence of the First World War and also prevent the start of yet another world war and this resulted into the formation of the League of Nations in 1919 and later the United Nations Organisation of 1945. The degrading effects of the Nazi experiments resulted into the Nuremberg trials and later the drafting of the Nuremberg code of 1947. The United Nations Organisation also drafted the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human rights in 1948 which is regarded as the mother of all other conventions protecting and promoting human rights in the world. Later in 1966 two other documents were signed that is the International Covenant on civil political rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic Social and cultural rights (ICESCR) to make the bill of rights consisting the Universal declaration of human rights, the International Convention on Civil political rights and the International Convention on Economic Social and cultural rights. It is in this period that international law became an essence and the billiard ball theory, one of the principles in the treaty of Westphalia (1648) was finally broken. Individuals started fighting for better forms of governance, which is democracy, promotion of the right to political participation and self-determination. This was the influential time in the evolution, devolution and development of human rights and governance.
Following the events in the pre-historic period, history was made, scholars made new discoveries that human rights and governance were indivisible. They concluded therefore that for human rights to transpire, we need good governance because it is due to bad leadership that human rights violations existed in history. They came up with principles of good governance; that is, the rule of law, constitutionalism, democratic governance and responsibility for unlawful acts. These principles were instituted in all forms of laws within different territories that existed at that time and with the satisfaction that these ideas were constituted within their forms of governance, the scholars similarly focused on ideas of development which then incited yet another wave of focused discussions, dialogues and debates all over the world and in the same spirit therefore, came up with a contemporary understanding of human rights. Under the modern view of human rights, human rights were divided into generations and dimensions; first generation including civil and political rights, second generation involving social economic and cultural rights and third generation including environmental rights and development rights. New discoveries were made that human superiority over the existence of other objects was becoming a threat to their existence due to the encroachment and destruction of the eco system. Human rights further evolved to third generation rights. By the 1992 Rio declaration, thinkers like Aldo Leopold came up with a land ethic and environmental ethics. It is here that the advocacy for the third generation rights developed with the establishment of institutions to promote these rights for example United Nations Environment Programme, providing for the right to a clean and healthy environment. It is also clearly slated in the United Nations Global Compact principles (principle 8 & 9) take on define environmental responsibility. It is also stated by the Rio Declaration of 1992 and chapter 30 of Agenda 21 that “we have responsibility that our activities on our own should not cause harm to the environment of our neighbours.” This is therefore a negative obligation that we have to restrain ourselves from intruding into the enjoyment of rights of other individuals.
By the issues discussed above, it is observed that human rights are as evolutionary as governance because it is noted that by each period of governance comes new methods of enforcing human rights and promoting respect for them. With each regime comes a new ideology in the protection mechanisms and the understanding of the human rights concept similarly changes. This therefore proves that human rights and governance are indeed evolutionary.