Human Rights

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Human rights is the concept that a person is entitled to be treated in certain ways and to have certain things simply because they are human. The most basic human rights are the right to life, freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and the right to be treated equally before the law. The concept of human rights developed in Europe from the 18th century onwards and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

The concept of human rights grew out of three ideas; (1) that human laws and institutions are man-made not God-made and thus can be changed, (2) that all humans are equal and (3) that all humans possess a quality called dignity. The first of these ideas is explicitly mentioned in the Agganna Sutta where the Buddha argued against the idea that the prevailing social system was divinely ordained (D.III,92). It is also mentioned in the Jàtaka where it is stated that people are justified in overthrowing unjust or cruel kings. The second of these ideas is explicitly mentioned in the Vàseññha Sutta where the Buddha argues against the caste system and says that ‘the differences between humans are insignificant’ (Sn.594-611). The third idea is not explicitly stated by the Buddha but is implicit in his teachings of the preciousness of life, that all beings are worthy of love and the idea that all have within them the ability to attain enlightenment. Despite this, Buddhist civilisations never developed the concept of human rights, probably because from an early period they adopted Hindu political theory in which the king is considered divine. Today, most traditional Buddhist countries have had an uneven or poor human rights record.